Tuesday, May 3, 2022

BTRTN: Biden’s Very, Very Modest Comeback Stalls

Tom with the BTRTN April 2022 Month in Review.

A few months ago we posited that Biden, though in the darkest hours of his relatively young presidency, was reasonably well-positioned for a 2022 comeback that just might save the midterms.  The keys were to manage well what was in his control, and to get a little bit of luck on the rest.

There have been nascent signs of such a comeback over the past few months, a few crocuses scattered here and there, largely driven by the massive decline in new COVID cases from the Omicron surge, and the surprisingly positive developments in the Russia/Ukraine war.  But as of the end of April, those crocuses have withered and the Biden comeback – as measured by his approval rating and other key data -- is in full stall mode, with few potential catalysts on the near-term horizon. 

Before we review the specifics, let’s make clear the political implications of the stall.  Without a comeback of some kind, the Democrats will certainly lose the House.  The key metric here – nearly infallible as a prediction tool -- is the generic ballot.  Right now the GOP is up +2 points (44% to 42%) in that hypothetical race, which does not sound like much.  But the Democrats have to get to +3, or better yet +5, to have a real chance to keep the House. That GOP +2 advantage has been as unmovable as Biden’s own approval rating, which has remained stubbornly at 43%.

And the more unlikely a Democratic hold on the House looks, the more money and resources will be shifted, on the margin, to holding the Senate, which at this juncture is just about a 50/50 proposition.  Senate races are far more driven than House races by the candidates themselves, rather than the macro political environment, and the Democrats have a solid shot at keeping the Senate despite the lack of positive momentum in the Biden comeback.

Below, in italics, was the BTRTN articulation, back in early February, of the presumed Biden Comeback Plan.  Each point is followed by a review of the current status -- through the month of April -- of each point.

COVID on the decline.  The Omicron surge will likely be over in a month; the mask wars will be over; life, with prudent precautions, will come roaring back in a summer of fun.  All Biden needs here is good luck:  no new deadly variants. 

The Omicron surge did end, and new cases dropped sharply, but alas, the new variant did arrive.  The Omicron BA.2 variant is more transmissible as the original Omicron, though not as deadly as Alpha or Delta, has resulted in an uptick of new cases in the last month, and the potential for a larger surge.  The Biden Administration has matched this mixed scenario, which is neither a “crisis” nor “the end,” with (more) mixed messages.  For example, Dr. Anthony Fauci announced, a few days ago, that “we are certainly, right now, in this country, out of the pandemic phase  -- and then, almost immediately after, said that he would not attend the White House Correspondents Association Dinner due to COVID concerns.  

The Gridiron dinner was another fiasco, as any number of Democratic luminaries who attended sans mask got infected, and this was followed by the couldn’t-be-worse optic of Kamala Harris getting COVID not long after she received her second booster shot.  All in all, the decline of COVID, such as it is, has helped Biden – but the pandemic  simply is not over, and that creates a messaging muddle, and COVID messaging was already (and remains) a Biden Administration weakness.

Continued robust economic growth.  With the infrastructure bill beginning to find its way to local projects, the Biden Administration can take credit for the 4% GDP growth expected in 2022, well above that of the pre-pandemic Trump years, and the Obama years as well. 

Despite last week’s announcement that the economy contracted by 1.4% in the first quarter, Biden has done well here.  The GDP blip was caused by inventory issues by and large, with the good news being:  1) that underlying consumer demand remains strong, and 2) unemployment has dropped further to 3.6%, the lowest in 53 years.  But all of that evidence of economic vitality has been overwhelmed by continued bad news on inflation.

Taming of inflation.  With a new report showing inflation up to 7.5%, and gas prices at a peak, this may be the toughest at all, a classic “kitchen table” issue difficult for presidents to influence.  But the Fed is expected to use fiscal instruments, in the form of interest rate hikes, to begin to put the brakes on the boom…that and the easing of the supply chain issues could at least show progress on managing inflation by November. 

Inflation continues to roar, and is now up to 8.5%, and while Biden is pulling out all the stops to influence it, including tapping the national reserve and allowing more oil leases, there is no short-term escape from a misery that he did not cause.  Gas prices did fall in the last month, but by and large, controlling inflation without triggering a full-blown recess is up to the Fed now. 

Breyer and Roe:  Biden will benefit greatly from being able to deliver on his promise to name a Black woman to the Supreme Court, and there will be a huge spotlight on the announcement and confirmation hearings.  On top of what is clearly going to be some kind of adverse ruling by the Roberts Court on Roe v. Wade, and Biden’s strong federal judge appointment track record, these issues will energize Democrats to a voting frenzy in the midterms. 

Biden’s appointment of DC Federal Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the bench was a clear win, and it passed the Senate with three GOP votes to boot.  But the “huge spotlight” on this clearly this historic announcement never happened, as the events in Ukraine overshadowed it and every other political development in that time frame.  The abortion wars will dominate the news in June when SCOTUS renders its decision, but with Ukraine, COVID, inflation, immigration and even the January 6 Commission hearings all in the mix, who knows whether the abortion wars will land the punch the Democrats really need. [Note: This was written before the stunning May 2 publication by Politico of Judge Samuel Alito’s draft opinion that strikes down Roe.]

Russia/Ukraine.  Biden has been lauded – on a bipartisan basis by politicians, and, in surveys, by Americans of both parties as well – for his management of the Ukraine crisis thus far.  He seems to have positioned himself into an unlikely “win/win” position.  If the Russians invade Ukraine, he will be seen as leading a unified NATO in exacting demanding economic sanctions while supplying the Ukrainians with sophisticated weaponry and aid.  And if Putin blinks, all the better.  Either way, U.S. leadership has already been acknowledged, prestige restored, and Biden is benefitting greatly. 

With the onset of the actual invasion, Biden’s response in Ukraine continues to be largely flawless.  The Russian abandoned their Kyiv siege, the Ukrainians sank a Russian battleship, and the new Donbas offensive is running into the same stiff Ukrainian opposition that stymied them in Kyiv.  Putin’s ruthless genocide has been condemned worldwide.  Weapons are flowing in from the West, and Biden just asked Congress for a mammoth $33 billion aid package – half the size of Russia’s defense budget -- underlining his commitment.  Europe is now considering a ban on Russian oil and gas imports, following the US move, demonstrating yet again the unity and depth of western support.  A nuclear disaster has thus far been avoided.  Overall, what more could anyone ask of Biden?  And yet, while Biden’s ratings on foreign policy have edged up a bit, even some Democrats believe he is not doing enough.

ISIS.  Knocking off the ISIS leader did not hurt on that front, either. 

A minor win that certainly did not hurt, but nor did it really help, and now is long forgotten.

Trump, January 6 and “reasonable political discourse.”  The self-inflicted wound the RNC just dealt the GOP can hardly be underestimated, putting January 6 right smack back on the table, deflecting attention from Biden just when he was at this lowest.  And that term – “reasonable political discourse” – when repeated over and over by Dem candidates atop insurrection footage, will be the gift that keeps on giving, defining today’s GOP much the way Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” defined the Trump White House.  The January 6 Commission’s hearings and findings, plus the Trump court cases in Georgia and New York, will continue to keep Trump front and center for the GOP, and effectively once again “on the ballot” in November

The Commission hearings, now scheduled for June, will be “must see TV,” and the nuggets being leaked out, including the McCarthy Tapes, are explosive.  But one has to be extremely skeptical that they will change anyone’s mind at this point.  Despite the tapes, McCarthy marches on, as Trump chose to view McCarthy’s hypocrisy as a sign of Trump’s own power, his deathgrip hold on the GOP, rather than exposing McCarthy as a traitor. 

Bonus #1: Inoculate the vulnerabilities:  All that would go a long way toward setting the tables for success in the midterms, but it would sure help if Biden and the Democrats could find a way to talk about three issues that the GOP will try to force into all campaign conversations:  crime, immigration and education (that is, Critical Race Theory).  Biden has already disavowed “Defund the Police” and embraced new New York City Mayor (and former cop) Eric Adams, so he is making progress on crime.  He needs reassuring talking points on the others as well. 

Immigration has become an albatross for Biden and coming to grips with it is no longer a “bonus,” it is a “must.”  His decision to end the public health authority, a.k.a. Title 42 in late May (put on hold by a federal judge), while laudable, is causing a great deal of pain for moderate, battleground state Democrats in an election year.  The end of Title 42 is expected to greatly increase the flow of immigrants fleeing to America across the southern border, an issue on which Biden already has vulnerability.

Bonus #2:  Soft Infrastructure Bill.   The soft bill may be too toxic, at this point, to take on in the middle of an election year.  But if a scaled down bill – say $750 million – could be cobbled together with the most popular elements of the old bill that Manchin could support – say, the climate change provisions and the Childcare Tax Credit with some needs-based test (assuming they could be passed within reconciliation rules) – the passage of such a bill would be a winner. 

Manchin has indeed expressed some openness to a scaled-back BBB, but at this point it seems unlikely to be resurrected.  If there is to be a mini-BBB, Schumer needs to make it happen soon before the crowded Senate calendar and the campaign trail render it impossible.

Down below you will see the net effect of all of this over the past three months as measured in key polling data, and the answer is:  not much.  While Biden has shown modest improvement since January on some key issues – notably foreign policy and COVD management – it has not been enough to move the overall needle, as his approval rating remains stuck at 43%.

There is still an opportunity – perhaps -- for Biden to make some headway between now and Election Day.  Fed actions could slow inflation; the Ukraine story could continue to provide positive fodder on his foreign policy chops; the SCOTUS abortion decision [See note above] and January 6th Commission output could each both outrage and inspire the Democrats, and maybe a mini-BBB bill gets done.  But the window to truly upend the current narrative in time to rescue the midterms is closing, and fast.


MADNESS

Sarah Palin is running to Congress, for the House seat no vacant with the death of long-term Alaska representative Don Young. 

Need we say more?

 

APPROVAL RATING

Joe Biden’s approval rating for the month of March remained stagnant at 43% for the third consecutive month, with a net negative of -8 percentage points. 


 

HOW BIDEN IS HANDLING KEY ISSUES

Biden’s ratings had shown material improvement since January on both COVID management and foreign policy, but with no further uptick this month, that momentum has stalled. 









GENERIC BALLOT

In April polling, on average the GOP continues to lead the Democrats on the generic ballot by a 44/42 margin.  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).





 

BIDENOMETER

The “Bidenometer” took a tumble from March to April, from 59 to 12, driven mostly by the contraction of the economy in Q1 of this year, and a 5% drop in the Dow.  Gas prices actually decreased this month, a positive sign, as did unemployment, while consumer confidence remained the same (and still surprisingly high given all the adverse economic headlines.)

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 +12 means that, on average, the five measures are 12% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +12, the economy is performing better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.  Unemployment is much lower, the Dow is much higher, as is consumer confidence.  Only gas prices have moved in the wrong direction under Biden.  Even the recent GDP blip is better than the -3.5% that marked Trump’s last quarter.

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 +12 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.


 

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