Members Only | December 14, 2021 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
The president’s low approval is democracy working. Voters are holding him accountable
The problem is a Republican Party that's not promising to do more to fight the covid pandemic. It's promising to do less.
More than five and a half million Americans out of work in January found jobs by November. In the same period, the jobless rate fell from 6.3 to 4.2 percent, a drop of one-third. Jobless claims in November hit a 52-year low. Real GDP growth for 2021 is expected to be 5.9 percent. (Between 2000 and 2019, real GDP growth stayed lower than 3 percent.) Biden’s temporary child tax credit, which provides direct cash payments to poor families, cut child hunger rates from 30 percent to 21 percent. That’s 2 million fewer kids who went hungry.
Biden’s economic success is impressive. But if he can’t beat covid, the country is going to suffer. Then it’s going to suffer some more.
This is remarkably good economic news, both for the middle class and for the most needy. Yet Biden’s popularity, as measured by poll aggregator FiveThirtyEight, remains in the doldrums. At 43 percent approval, his numbers are worse than any postwar president at this point in his term except for his predecessor, Donald Trump.
So why isn’t Biden getting credit for the economic boom? There could be a number of factors. The accelerating economy has created higher demand. Coupled with supply chain issues related to the ongoing pandemic, this has resulted in 6.2 percent inflation – the highest in decades. Real hourly wages fell 1.2 percent from October 2020.
In addition, thanks to right-wing media and mainstream media’s higher expectations of Democrats, Biden tends to receive more negative coverage than Trump did. Many outlets are doing a poor job of informing the public there is a lot of good economic news.
Moreover, as partisan polarization has increased, the economy has made less and less impact on presidential approval. Conservatives are unwilling to give Democrats’ credit when the economy is good.
All of that factors in. But I suspect the main reason for Biden’s numbers is that we’re still in the middle of a dangerous, grinding pandemic.
Biden promised to defeat covid. He hasn’t done so, partially for reasons outside his control, and partially through administrative failures. The US remains mired in the worst domestic crisis of probably the last 100 years. As long as that’s the case, people have reasons to be unhappy. When people are unhappy, they tend to blame the person in charge.
We can’t make a causal link between covid and Biden’s popularity, but what evidence we have supports the connection. Biden’s approval was holding steady at over 50 percent through last summer, according to FiveThirtyEight. Thanks to Biden’s early vaccine successes, covid numbers at that time had fallen substantially. New cases were down to about 11,000 a week, and deaths dropped below 200 a week – numbers not seen since the very beginning of the pandemic.
But in July, cases started to spike again, and by early August deaths were rising, too. At about the same time, Biden’s approval plummeted to its current levels. Covid cases have never returned to those summer lows, and Biden’s approval hasn’t recovered either.
The US failure to defeat covid isn’t entirely Biden’s fault. Ending a full-blown pandemic is difficult. And the GOP has frequently and irresponsibly sided with the virus. Right-wing anti-vaccine propaganda from conservative media and GOP officials has been largely responsible for slowing vaccine uptake to a crawl.
The US remains mired in the worst domestic crisis of probably the last 100 years. As long as that’s the case, people have reasons to be unhappy. When people are unhappy, they tend to blame the person in charge.
In April, Americans were getting 3.5 million shots a day. But that cratered to less than a million a day after July, and has only recently recovered to around 2 million a day as children become eligible. The main problem is GOP opposition: only 54 percent of white Republicans under 65 are vaccinated. Twenty-three percent say they never will be.
Republicans have consistently opposed measures to reduce spread. Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida has signed legislation to fine businesses and even hospitals that require employees to be vaccinated. Governor Greg Abbott in Texas has been fighting to prevent schools from requiring students to wear masks. Because of Republican opposition, Biden hasn’t been able to pass a federal contractor vaccine mandate, and his executive order has been held up in court. It’s difficult to stop the virus when one party is committed to not stopping it as an exercise in anti-establishment posturing.
But Biden isn’t blameless either. He declared, “I will end this.” But his, and Democrats’, actual actions have been less resolute.
Biden has pushed for businesses and schools to institute vaccine mandates with some success. New York has required all school employees to be vaccinated. Vaccinations for eligible students, though, have been a tougher sell; Democratic governors have mostly avoided instituting that requirement, though it would slow transmission.
The administration has been even worse on testing. White House spokesperson Jen Psaki scoffed at the idea of the government sending rapid at-home covid tests to all Americans. But Germany has widespread free testing sites while at-home tests there and in other parts of Europe are a few dollars a piece. In the US, they’re $25-$30.
Access to rapid testing is vital for early detection, so people can stay home when they are ill and not spread the virus. So yes, free at-home rapid tests for every American is the ideal if we want to defeat the virus. It’s disturbing that the administration doesn’t see that.
Biden has also failed to be aggressive enough in addressing the pandemic worldwide. In September, he announced that he wanted to vaccinate 70 percent of the world’s population by the end of 2022, and purchased another 500 million doses for global distribution.
That’s a good step. But it’s also clearly too little too late given new variants like omicron. The US has donated 1.1 billion doses. Experts say five to six times that is needed. Psaki said other wealthy countries need to do more, which is no doubt true. But if we want to stop seeing new variants emerge, maybe it would be a good idea for the US to do more as well. Psaki and Biden tend to frame our contributions as charity, rather than what it is — a matter of self-preservation.
In July, cases started to spike again, and by early August deaths were rising, too. At about the same time, Biden’s approval plummeted to its current levels. Covid cases have never returned to those summer lows, and Biden’s approval hasn’t recovered either.
The Biden administration has made important strides against the virus. The consistent pro-vaccine, pro-masking messaging, are huge improvements over Donald Trump. But the virus is still a major worry, and Americans who blame Biden for not doing enough have a point, even if the economy has shown a remarkable recovery.
In fact, Biden’s low approval is an example of democracy working correctly, at least in large part. He said he’d beat the virus. He hasn’t beaten the virus. Voters are holding him accountable.
The problem is that the other party is not promising to do more to fight the virus. They’re promising to do less. Voter dissatisfaction should push Biden to do more to defeat the pandemic. But if he doesn’t, or if he fails because of obstruction or other factors, we won’t get more vigorous global vaccination or free home testing for all. We’ll get quack cures, anti-mandate laws, more disease, and more death. Biden’s economic success is impressive. But if he can’t beat covid, the country is going to suffer. Then it’s going to suffer some more.
Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.