Tom with the BTRTN March 2022 Month in Review.
Few presidents have ever entered office with heavier burdens than those assumed by Joe Biden – perhaps only Lincoln and FDR, with a nod to Obama as well. But unlike any of them, Biden faced epic crises on two fronts. The first was the COVID pandemic; Biden came to office in the midst of a huge surge of cases from the Alpha variant, with vaccines at the ready but a miserable non-plan for distributing them, and an economy ravaged by the pandemic. The second mega-crisis was that, unlike all of his predecessors, he lacked, essentially, the consent of the governed, his claim to office viewed as illegitimate due to widespread acceptance that his election was tainted, based on the lies of his predecessor.
While much progress has been made on the virus and the economy – notably in distributing vaccines and driving down unemployment -- more work remains with the threat of new variants and the spiking inflation caused by supply and labor shortages. The legitimacy issue sadly remains, as a huge swath of the electorate continues to believe The Big Lie. And to these two enormous burdens has been added a third – the largest threat to world stability since World War II (or perhaps the Cuban Missile Crisis), with the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine and the threat of superpower confrontation and potential nuclear war.
Last month, in February, prior to the actual invasion, Biden and his administration performed exceptionally. They warned clearly, continually and, ultimately accurately, of the gravity of the threat. They telegraphed each Russian move before it happened. Their forecast that Russia was intent on invading the entirety of Ukraine, and not just making a show of force or, perhaps, seeking only to expand in the Donbas provinces, turned out to be dead-on. With this month, March, came the full of weight of managing the war.
That story begins with the Ukrainians, who have risen spectacularly to the challenge. What was initially viewed as a two-day walkover by the Russian army, culminating in the “decapitation” of the Ukraine government, has been anything but. The Ukraine army and its citizenry (armed with Molotov cocktails) stopped the Russian advance in Kyiv suburbs miles away from the inner city, preventing its encirclement (and thereby disabling the newer Russian strategy of laying siege to Kyiv and slowly strangling it). They yielded only one major city to the Russians, Kherson – and then fought on, wresting it back from Russian control. One southern city, Mariupol’, has been largely reduced to rubble, and yet the Ukrainians fight on, refusing to abandon it. Almost 25% of the country has been displaced, with roughly half of those leaving the country entirely – and yet they fight on. The Russian army, demoralized and undersupplied, has been reduced to engaging in the most despicable warfare possible -- long-range missiles targeting civilian locations – for which Putin richly deserves the label “war criminal.”
At this juncture, the Ukraine defense has been so effective that they are now launching counterattacks on Russian positions outside of Kyiv, in some instances pushing them out even further from the city’s parameter. The Russians have announced that they intend to reduce their position in Kyiv (and other cities) considerably, to re-focus their efforts on the Donbas – though to date there has been little evidence on the ground that this strategy is being implemented.
For the Biden Administration, managing the Ukraine invasion has been yet another balancing act in a presidency already full of them. Biden has had to navigate, with mixed success, between progressive and moderates within his own party, on his Build Back Better legislation. He has sought to gain a few GOP votes to ensure bipartisan support of at least some of his agenda, without losing necessary progressive votes. His economic program – and that now of the Fed – is wedged between the Scylla and Charybdis of growth and jobs versus spiking inflation. And now he and his western allies are balancing the most delicate and riskiest high wire act of them all -- supporting Ukraine enough to fend off, and even defeat the Russians, while avoiding direct war with Russia, including the prospect of nuclear war.
On this, Biden deserves extraordinarily high marks. This is the Joe Biden we sought on foreign affairs, balanced and nuanced, tough yet empathetic, and strategically savvy. Biden has had critics all the way along: Republicans who called for sanctions even before the invasion; Democrats and Republicans imploring him to establish a no-fly zone and effect a deal to help Polish planes find their way to the Ukraine; and still others who, moved by compassion but blind to the lessons of history and the geopolitical realities, have begged for American troops on the ground to help the tormented and undermanned Ukrainians.
He has resisted all this and still led an exceptionally unified global response – far in excess of anyone’s expectations in scope --that has succeeded in ravaging the Russian economy and Putin’s reputation. The latter has resorted to putting a virtual iron curtain around global communications so that the Russian people can only hear state-sponsored propaganda on the progress of the war. Putin has largely reversed his prior success on one of his most cherished goals – one he brilliantly manipulated through the vessel of Donald Trump – to de-unify the West. Instead, the US and its NATO and other western allies are completely unified, stronger than ever.
Biden – personally – deserves much of the credit. Without US support – inconceivable under Putin-sycophant Trump – the global response could not possible have been as pronounced and devastating. The west has supplied economic support, military weaponry and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, as well as helped train its troops and benefit from shared intelligence, and all have been integral to the success, thus far, of the Ukraine stand.
Biden’s latest triumph was a whirlwind visit to Europe, a NATO summit to discuss the Ukraine crisis, along with special sessions of the European Council and the G7. The trip underscored NATO solidarity while also serving as a forum for substantive discussion on the western response to potential Russian use of chemical and/or nuclear weapons, escalation steps the Russians were refusing to rule out categorically.
The European tour culminated with a trip to Poland, which occurred at Biden’s insistence. The Poles have been shouldering the largest burden of the Ukraine refugee burden, by virtue of a 330-mile shared border. Poland, of course, has long been a contested territory in East/West conflicts, prized by Russian for its strategic position, and the Polish people have long suffered as pawns of war. Coming to Poland was a special statement for Biden, and he used the opportunity to demonstrate commitment to the integrity of their sovereignty and borders, and support for their refugee efforts.
He ended that speech with an off-script ad lib, a special message to the Russian people, these now famous nine words: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” Unscripted? Yes. Unplanned? Doubtful. Biden is too experienced – even with his gaffe-machine history – to have not thought through this moment. Those words were pure Biden, a visceral, heartfelt response to Putin’s terror and war, one that could not be mistaken.
His administration swiftly and dutifully walked back the apparent change in U.S. policy to effect regime change in Moscow, but Biden himself doubled down on his message, refusing to walk it back on a “personal” level. There is little likelihood that Putin was shocked by the message, as he has long assumed that Biden and the West indeed craves regime change. Of course they do. Thoughts that these nine words will somehow result in an even more stubborn and vindictive Putin are likely off-base (or, as Biden might put it, malarkey.)
More likely, those nine words will shore up Biden’s standing in the U.S. Americans seem to prefer toughness over subtlety, and the echo of Ronald Reagan’s ringing “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” was unmistakable. Biden essentially could end up having his cake and eating it too.
What Americans truly crave, however, is the type of leadership exhibited by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zellenskyy, who looks like JFK and talks like Churchill, standards that Joe Biden could never hope to approach. But Americans elected Joe Biden for a reason, and part of it was his humanity, the one political weapon in his arsenal where he can outshine the aloof JFK and aristocratic Churchill (though Churchill, given to deep emotion, even tears, connected astonishingly well with the British everyman). Planned or not, gaffe or otherwise, those nine words were Biden through-and-through, and authenticity is usually a very good thing in a leader.
The rest of the month saw further progress on COVID, albeit with many holding their breath over the extent of the presumed pending Omicron BA.2 surge. Biden’s management of such a surge is highly dependent on Congress passing more COVID relief measures, which at this moment is still in negotiation.
Another 431,000 jobs were added to the books in March, driving unemployment down to 3.6%, fully back to pre-pandemic levels. But inflation continued to soar, driven by record gas prices, and that one measure may well define the Democrats midterm prospects. The Russian invasion has resulted in a shock to world energy markets, driving up oil prices, and with them gas prices, which will be sticky on the downside as oil companies squeeze profits from their windfall. Biden can do little – even his opening of the strategic reserve is of limited value – except hope that the Fed’s planned series of rate increases will both reduce inflation and not induce a recession – a tightrope that usually cannot be successfully traversed.
This was a busy month for Trump, who is almost always the star of our “Madness” section. The January 6 commission identified a 7-hour plus gap in his White House phone log of that day that makes Nixon’s 18-minute gap look positively tame. A federal district judge determined that Trump and lawyer John Eastman were likely guilty of felony obstruction of Congress in his ruling that Eastman must hand over his emails to the commission. And in a bizarre and astonishingly-timed echo of the tactics that got him impeached the first time, Trump called on Putin to release any damning information he has on Biden.
But for sheer folly, it is hard to top this exchange. On March 10, Trump was interviewed on a podcast called “Full Send.” Trump spoke with the host, Kyle Forgeard, for nearly an hour, and the conversation included this interchange on the Russia/Ukraine crisis.
Forgeard: "What do you see happening next then? 'Cause it seems like the tensions are high. How does this all end? Is this going to be like a long-term thing? How do you see it unfolding?
Trump: "Well, and I said this a long time ago, if this happens, we are playing right into their hands. Green energy. The windmills. They don't work. They're too expensive. They kill all the birds. They ruin your landscapes. And yet the environmentalists love the windmills. And I've been preaching this for years. The windmills. And I had them way down. But the windmills are the most expensive energy you can have. And they don't work. And by the way, they last a period of 10 years and by the time they start rusting and rotting all over the place, nobody ever takes them down. They just go on to the next piece of prairie or land and destroy that."
For those of you who may be confused, yes, the windmill answer was in response to a direct question about the Ukraine invasion and where it might go, and what it might mean long-term. It was a complete non-sequitor.
Joe Biden’s approval rating for the month of March remained at 43%, and a net negative of -8 percentage points.
HOW BIDEN IS HANDLING KEY ISSUES
Biden’s ratings showed material improvement on both COVID management and foreign policy, which makes sense in light of the events of the month. But the economy remains the key issue of the day, and inflation trends are clearing holding Biden back overall, and there has been little movement in evaluations of his management of the economy for six months now.
In March polling, on average the GOP continues to lead the Democrats on the generic ballot by a single point. Using BTRTN’s proprietary models (which have been extremely accurate in midterm elections), if this lead was still in place on Election Day in 2022, the GOP would pick up about 20 seats and take over the House with some room to spare, though hardly in the magnitude of the losses experienced by Bill Clinton in his first midterms (-54 seats) or Barack Obama (-63), or even Donald Trump (-40).
The “Bidenometer” fell slightly from February to March, from 65 to 60, driven mostly by the sharp rise in gas prices brought on by the Ukraine war and the sanctions on Russia. That rise was partially offset by the drop in the unemployment rate and the rise of the stock market. Consumer confidence dipped slightly.
As a reminder, this measure is designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.
This exclusive BTRTN measure is comprised of five indicative data points: the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP. The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.
The +65 means that, on average, the five measures are 68% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below). With a Bidenometer of +60, the economy is clearly performing much better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office. Unemployment is much lower, the GDP is now roaring, the Dow is much higher, as is consumer confidence. Only gas prices have moved in the wrong direction under Biden.
Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, you can see from the chart below that under Clinton the measure ended at +55. It declined from +55 to only +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery. Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it. Now we have seen it move upward to +60 under Biden.
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Notes on methodology:
BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters. The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.
For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.
The Bidenometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Biden Inaugural on January 20, 2021, on an average percentage change basis. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump left office. The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.