This poor national mood is a disaster in the making for Democrats in the November midterm elections in the first place, but it’s been a long time coming.
The first two decades of this century led to morally destructive military defeats, a generational economic crisis and an era of political turmoil, including profound social and demographic changes and an equally intense backlash.
Talking about a new civil war in some media is exaggerated. But divided blocs of conservatives and liberals seem to genuinely believe the other is determined to take away their vision of America. A powerful force on the right is the idea that a country that becomes more racially diverse (in part through immigration), becomes more socially liberal on gender issues and more secular, is being stripped of its typical white identity. Emerging Republicans, meanwhile, have seized on public health guidelines and masks to spark a wave of anger based on the idea that Americans’ individual freedoms are being eroded.
A Republican party wielding the filibuster in the Senate, meanwhile, is thwarting Biden’s power to save the country’s democracy from a flurry of new laws in GOP-led states that make it harder to vote and easier to politicize election results.
Trump has weaponized the country’s divisions for his own political ends. His lie that the last election was stolen from him has captivated his followers and made Biden an illegitimate leader in the eyes of millions — an impression the president cannot possibly restore.
American dominance under attack
Much of this catalog of misery is impossible to quantify. But everyone sees the tension and emotional toll on their friends and family of a once-in-a-hundred-year public health crisis. Even if the average new daily cases are currently falling, the pandemic will leave a trauma that will take years to heal.
The psychological impact of the way America feels will be described by history. But it has real-time political implications.
A gruff mood in a country divided in multiple ways translates into an ever-decreasing confidence in political leaders and the system itself. It also helps explain why a summer economic rebound, a drop in inflation and more legislative success on Capitol Hill are unlikely to save Biden’s presidency.
“We have to keep going. And I think our best days are ahead of us,” Biden said at an event last month highlighting a push to increase semiconductor supply. But the president’s attempt to contain the national psyche and his own political prospects sounded rather hollow.
A terrible poll for Biden
But Biden gets little credit, and DailyExpertNews’s latest poll is just brutal on the president.
Only 41% of those polled approve of the way Biden does his job. His approval rating for the economy has fallen to 37% — down 8 points since early December alone. Only 45% approve of his approach to the pandemic he was chosen to end. When those who disdained Biden’s overall achievements were asked to name one thing he had done and which they approved, 56% had nothing positive to say. “It’s hard for me to think of anything he’s done that would benefit the country,” one respondent wrote.
It is true that no modern president has experienced the confluence of crises that Biden did when he was sworn in nearly 13 months ago. And any commander in chief would have had a hard time. But Biden has rarely reached the heights of empathy and rhetoric he showed in an inaugural address intended to bring the nation back together after the pandemonium of the Trump years.
“Our history has been a constant battle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear and demonization have long torn us apart,” Biden said after his swearing-in ceremony.
A year later, the latter half of that equation seems to dominate the first, in no small part because of the pernicious influence of its predecessor, who appears to be plotting a comeback attempt in 2024.
But Biden may also have done too little to get the nation behind him. He lacks the steady and sunny confidence of President Franklin Roosevelt, who guided his country through the great crises of the Great Depression and World War II. Some Americans also saw the ambition of Biden’s social spending plan as a betrayal of the moderate image he had cultivated on the campaign trail. The pandemic’s refusal to loosen its grip during the first year of his presidency has hammered his reputation for prowess. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which should have been a political winner, was instead a parable of presidential incompetence as it descended into bloody chaos. High inflation has been responsible for ending countless political careers over the past century, and the White House’s repeated misrepresentations that downplay the seriousness of price hikes for basic goods have not helped.
Biden has restored propriety and decency in the White House. But a president nearing 80 may not have the stimulative power to inspire many younger Americans. And Biden admitted last month that he had not fully mastered the role of the presidency after decades in the US Senate.
Republicans deepen national malaise
The divisions in America are so entrenched that it’s hard to see how Biden will get his approval rating out of 10 or 15 points or so that history suggests it’s a safer zone for the party of first-term presidents in midterm elections. Even a sudden release from Covid-19 and an economic spurt may not change the perception of a country in crisis, especially given the lack of a common national reality.
Given the circumstances, the midterm elections should be one of the easiest ever for Republicans hoping to win the Senate and House of Representatives. But the party is tearing itself apart, split between lawmakers who have fully believed in Trump’s cult of personality — whether through persuasion or political cowardice — and a seemingly smaller, more traditional bloc of conservatives. The feud broke out again this week when Senate Leader Mitch McConnell criticized a Republican National Commission resolution that described the January 6 insurgency as “legitimate political discourse.” Trump and his acolytes quickly hit back, raising the possibility of internal GOP strife that could detract from the midterm’s message and again alienate the suburban voters who helped remove Trump from the presidency after one term.