How Can Biden Be Successful and Unpopular At the Same Time?

Maybe he focused on the wrong things.

Joe Biden
American president Joe Biden disembarks Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington DC, October 15 (White House/Erin Scott)

Earlier this week, I argued the media consensus about Joe Biden is too negative; that the first year of his presidency has been more successful than the headlines suggest.

But Biden is also unpopular. Just 42 percent of Americans believe he’s doing a good job, down from 53 percent when he started. His party is projected to lose the midterm elections in November.

Two things can be true:

  1. Biden had been moderately successful.
  2. He has focused too little on the issues Americans care about.

Too woke?

Smart center-left and center-right commentators like Ruy Teixeira and Andrew Sullivan believe Biden has been too wedded to the far-left or “woke” agenda.

To the extent that he has prioritized voting reform and “equity” in government, I agree. These are not issues that keep many Americans up at night, certainly not the type of Americans who decide the outcome of federal elections.

But I also think this is more about rhetoric than substance.

Biden absurdly called opponents of making it easier to vote the heirs of George Wallace, the segregationist former Alabama governor (and Democrat) — and it persuaded no one.

I’m not sure what “equity” in government means (neither Teixeira nor Sullivan gives examples), and I suspect most Americans don’t either.

Meanwhile, Biden has got two spending bills through Congress totaling $3 trillion (14 percent of GDP), ended his predecessor’s draconian border policies, lifted the ban on transgenders serving in the military, paused federal student debt payments and brought the United States back into the Paris Climate Agreement.

Biden and the left generally should be touting those achievements every chance they get.

Instead, Democratic lawmakers and leftwing activists are on TV berating two of their own — Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema — for not supporting an even bigger infrastructure bill and abolishing the filibuster in order to overcome Republican obstruction to voting reform. Americans are left with the impression that Biden and Democrats aren’t getting things done. All those barely paying attention to politics know about Manchin and Sinema is that they are preventing Democrats from realizing “ambitious” and “transformative” plans, and that probably sounds fine to them.

What Biden should do

Americans’ priorities are:

  1. The economy.
  2. The COVID-19 pandemic.
  3. High inflation (7 percent in 2021).
  4. Rising crime.
  5. Immigration.

Biden should be talking about his infrastructure law nonstop. It is the biggest boost he can give the economy. Donald Trump talked about infrastructure four years long and didn’t get anything done. Biden has $1 trillion to invest in rails, roads, electrification, high-speed internet and replacing lead pipes, and he’s keeping it a secret.

Americans will blame the sitting president for the state of the country, even though there’s little more Biden can do about COVID-19 (his attempt to force employers to vaccinate their workers was struck down by the Supreme Court as an overreach) and little at all he can do to bring down inflation (that’s the Federal Reserve’s job).

The causes of rising crime, after a thirty-year fall, aren’t fully understood. The pandemic probably hasn’t helped. We’re all on edge. America’s gun fetish doesn’t help either: it makes any increase in crime almost invariably more violent. Biden’s silence is disconcerting. At the very least he should repudiate the “defund the policy” fantasies of the far left, like Democratic mayors Eric Adams of New York and London Breed of San Francisco have. Ideally he would initiate reforms in law enforcement that are opposed by Republicans, such as banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, decriminalizing cannabis use and expunging all cannabis convictions, ending incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses, and using the money this will free up to invest in community-oriented policing and better police training. (Few American police officers live in the neighborhoods they police. They receive less training than their counterparts in Europe, and almost no training in conflict management and deescalation. Read my story from 2020 for more on this.)

Immigration is another issue on which Biden has been silent. He was right to lift Trump’s racist ban on travel from Muslim countries, end the cruel separation of families on the southern border and pull funding from the useless border wall. But he hasn’t replaced Trump’s with better policies.

By far most Americans — 75 percent, including 65 percent of Republicans — are convinced immigration is good for the country. Only 29 percent say it should be reduced. (4 percent apparently want less of a good thing.) But 77 percent also believe it is important to control the border. Only a third of Americans believe the southern border is currently secure, and a majority believes too little is being done to prevent people from crossing it illegally.

A border wall is useless if you don’t have agents to patrol it, and when you have enough agents you scarcely need a wall. Biden is due to give his State of the Union address on March 1. Let him ask Congress for money to hire more staff, for both the Border Patrol and understaffed immigration courts. It’s the right thing to do (delays in hearings are one reason so many immigrants remain in the United States illegally), and it would repudiate Republican accusations that Democrats want “open borders”.