Tom with the BTRTN May 2022 Month in Review.
It’s really hard to find too much fault with the Joe Biden presidency. Sure, it has been far from perfect, from missteps in COVID communications, to messiness in the Afghanistan exit, to wildly understating the potential longevity of inflation. But Biden has also scored a number of real accomplishments: managing COVID down to a dull roar; propelling an economy that is exhibiting real growth (that is, growth even accounting for inflation) and near full-employment; getting a massive infrastructure bill passed (something his three predecessors failed to do) on a bipartisan basis, no less; masterful management of the Ukraine invasion, including restoration of unity among our allies; and a return to competence, analysis, empathy and integrity in our federal government.What troubles America about the Biden presidency are factors largely out of his control. He alone cannot set new rules for Congress to enable passage of the kind of societal-changing legislation that many crave. He cannot influence Joe Manchin, who is opposed to filibuster reform – he simply has no leverage over Manchin (apart from threatening to campaign in West Virginia on Manchin's behalf, which would pretty much destroy Manchin’s chances of re-election). He cannot put vaccines into every arm, he cannot control the worldwide supply chain, he cannot manufacturer baby formula; he cannot ban assault rifles; and he cannot prevent Vladimir Putin from committing, simultaneously, military genocide and political suicide. Many Americans simply have a wildly inflated view of presidential power, and in our system, the checks and balances have never worked so well to ensure inaction on the many massive issues of our times.
But the buck stops with Biden, and so far he is bearing the brunt of the blame for a divided and dysfunctional country. Perhaps the most frightening figure is that the percentage of Americans who believe America is on the “right track” has fallen to 25%, and that is a five-point drop in the last month. It was at 20% when Trump left office, and Biden literally “built it back” to 43% within two months of his inauguration, before it began sliding, when it became clear that Biden was not a miracle worker nonpareil.
The events of the last month have nearly cemented the death of the hoped-for Biden 2022 comeback. The Ukraine war continues to go reasonably well, but the price tag on its support is soaring and the drumbeat of opposition to Biden’s support of it is now audible. The latest COVID variant has resulted in a doubling of new cases across the country in May versus April, from just over a million cases to over two million, and that’s just among reported cases (generally excluding home tests, the use of which are presumably on the rise). Inflation may have peaked, but that is far from even a hollow victory when it is still roaring at 8.3%. Congress is as inept as ever, the Built Back Better legislation remaining a fumbled opportunity that is barely breathing. And well beyond that: in the wake of the latest mass shooting atrocity in Uvalde, Texas, the murder of 19 elementary school children and two educators, all our legislators can offer are outrage on the Democrats’ side and pro-gun bullet points from the GOP. That adds up to zero action -- when the vast majority of the nation believes meaningful gun reform is long overdue.
There is an awful lot of pain in the United States right now, crying for relief, and Joe Biden is not able to provide it.
Unfortunately for Biden, the parallels to George H. W. Bush’s presidency are hard to avoid. Bush and Biden share many similarities, both career politicians who brought to the White House decades of deep experience across domestic and foreign affairs. Both became dutiful Vice Presidents to far more charismatic presidents. Both are an archetype: kindly, old school, unthreatening white men, dull as doornails, comfortable striding along the hallways of power, into backrooms, situation rooms and the Oval Office. They are the type of leaders that many find comfort in, steady hands who can pick up a phone and hobnob with world leaders on a first name basis, the kind who have seen everything and seem to never look surprised by the onset of a new crisis. These characteristics, indeed, were what got Biden elected.
Bush’s presidency was a fairly simple story – he brilliantly managed the Gulf War, forging an international alliance par excellence to counter Saddam Hussein’s naked grab of Kuwait, and led a military coalition that devastated the Iraqis with the brute force of Desert Storm. And then, having accomplished his clearly articulated goals, he chose not to overreach by chasing down and ousting Hussein, well aware and wary of the nation-building commitment that would follow, with no exit strategy. He brought the victorious troops home, with few casualties.
Bush’s approval rating shot up to 90%, the highest Gallup has recorded since it started tracking presidential approval with Harry Truman. But it all came tumbling down with an election year recession, to which Bush had neither an answer nor the slightest idea how to relate to the economic concerns of the Every Man, exposing his to-the-manor-born roots. (He rather famously whiffed when asked in a debate with Bill Clinton how much a gallon of milk cost.) He was thus defeated by Clinton in 1992.
Biden’s analogies to Bush are clear. The Ukraine story, while far from complete, is already quite a foreign policy win for Biden. Bush merely had to tap into his long relationships with allies to activate them to the Kuwaiti cause; Biden had the far harder task of reinventing those bonds, which were badly weakened by Trump. No one would ever call Biden an out-of-touch patrician, but his response to the domestic issues, including inflation and, to a lesser extent, COVID, echo Bush’s, in that Biden seems uncertain and reactive on these issues, in sharp contrast to the bold, innovative leader we have seen dealing with Ukraine.
The Bush comparison is bad enough, but the murmuring you are starting to hear is the even-more-dreaded Carter comparison. The Bush presidency has been rehabilitated somewhat in recent years, in part by the inevitable comparison to his rash son, who bungled his own Middle East war, and also by virtue of a very sympathetic biography by Jon Meacham. Carter has regained some ground as well, through his own model post-presidency, but the four years of his presidency are still viewed harshly, far worse than Bush’s. Carter’s average approval rating of 46% (again, Gallup) during his presidency was the lowest since Truman, and worse than all his successors, including Bush’s rather lofty 60% -- with the single exception of Donald Trump (41%).
Carter, a one-term Governor of Georgia, had neither the resume nor the gravitas of George H. W. Bush, who was a former congressman, CIA director, RNC chair, Ambassador to China and Vice President. Carter was also viewed as a moralistic and stiff prude who exuded little public warmth. While his presidency was not devoid of accomplishment, notably in his brokering the Camp David Accords, he was overwhelmed by the double blows of stagflation and the Iran hostage crisis. His inability to solve either led to his own one-term demise, losing to Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Carter’s presidency is now defined, perhaps, by a single word he never uttered: “malaise.” He may not have said the precise word in his “Malaise Speech,” but it is a good word to describe his assessment of the national will – what he did term a “crisis of confidence” – that was occurring on his watch.
“It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt of the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of unity and purpose as a Nation. The erosion of confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of the nation.”
This is the comparison that Biden simply must avoid. We, as a country, may have met the Ukraine challenge like the America of old, but we did not meet the COVID challenge, are not meeting the climate change challenge, nor the gun control challenge and so many more, with our politics locked in a death spiral of inaction. Biden thought he could solve this – and the infrastructure bill offered tangible proof of his formidable talent in building legislative consensus. But after that – pffft. Americans now seem to be in despair, each tribe believing the other represents the death of America, with one side adopting cheating as its defining mantra, and the other simply stymied and frustrated. Little seems to be getting done to combat the large issues of the day, including inflation and, now, gun control. Might you call that a crisis of confidence in our system, a national malaise?
The only presidents in the last 100 years to serve only a single full-term are Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, Bush and Donald Trump. Biden has zero interest in adding his name to that list. He must find more victories to avoid those Bush/Carter comparisons that would truly doom him to join the list of single termers.
He has time. Reagan, Clinton and Obama all got shellacked in their first midterms – likely Biden’s fate -- and recovered to win second terms, rather easily in fact. Manchin is now working with Chuck Schumer on a mini-BBB; Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy is talking with GOP moderates willing to engage in early post-Uvalde gun control discussions; and look for Biden to issue a string executive orders designed to demonstrate action across hot button issues, if not permanent change. This may not add up to enough to hold the House in 2022, but it could make a difference on the margin in those battleground Senate races, and put Biden on the path to reelection in 2024.
Especially if his opponent is Donald Trump, who has seen his vaunted king-making powers take a hit in early GOP primaries (with as many prominent losses among those he backed as wins); continues to face ominous legal headwinds in Georgia, New York and rumblings from the Department of Justice; and chose to appear at the NRA convention just days after Uvalde and double down on total gun rights protection, a position the center tends to loathe. If Biden is teetering on the cusp of Carter malaise comparisons, Trump certainly won’t offer Reaganesque “Morning in America” bromides to a downcast citizenry. Remember Trump’s dark and wacky Inaugural address, that apocalyptic screed that George W. Bush neatly and memorably characterized minutes after it ended as follows: “That was some weird shit.”
If Trump falters, many point to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as a new era incarnation of him. But DeSantis is simply just another smooth-as-silk but bland-as-vanilla politician. He simply does not inspire the godlike devotion that fills arenas and drives messianic followers to the polls, as does Trump. Trump is what DeSantis is not: a bellowing charlatan, full-throated firebrand and tabloid and TV celebrity of the first order. DeSantis is far more like George H.W. Bush than George Wallace, and that ain’t gonna butter the biscuit electorally.
The GOP has a real problem in 2024, with Trump, his wannabees yapping nervously on the sidelines, and an increasing field of emboldened never-Trumpers, such as Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and Wyoming Representative (for now) Lynne Cheney, who might make life quite uncomfortable for Trump and his wannabees on the campaign trail, laying waste to their ludicrous “stolen election” claims on debate podiums, in front of large audiences.
But for now, it is up to Biden to chart a winning path in the next 30 months.
How is this possible in the United States of America, that the man who said this is revered by 30-40% of our nation?
“Shortly after hundreds of rioters at the Capitol started chanting ‘Hang Mike Pence!’ on Jan. 6, 2021, the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, left the dining room off the Oval Office, walked into his own office and told colleagues that President Donald J. Trump was complaining that the vice president was being whisked to safety. Mr. Meadows, according to an account provided to the House committee investigating Jan. 6, then told the colleagues that Mr. Trump had said something to the effect of, maybe Mr. Pence should be hanged.”
Joe Biden’s approval rating for the month of March dropped a single point, from 43% to 42%.
HOW BIDEN IS HANDLING KEY ISSUES
Biden’s “key issue” ratings generally held at April levels, except for a slight drop on his handling of the economy and the already-noted 5-point drop on “right track.”
In May polling, on average the GOP continues to lead the Democrats on the generic ballot by +1.4 percentage points. 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). This figure could be further eroded when we incorporate a full restricting effect; redistricting is not quite complete as yet.
The “Bidenometer” dropped again from April to May, from +12 to +8, driven mostly by an abrupt rise in the price of gas. Other measures were virtually unchanged, inclduing, perhaps oddly, consumer confidence, which remains rather high at 106.
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 +8 means that, on average, the five measures are 8% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below). With a Bidenometer of +8, 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[w2] .
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 +8 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.