Last July, President Joe Biden made a series of public remarks that have come back to haunt him as things have turned out to be the opposite of what he predicted. Those statements marked the beginning of a tumbling approval rating, which, a year later, has yet to bounce back.
Biden’s time in the White House started off promising after the Democrat received more than 81 million votes—the most ever cast for a presidential candidate—and he entered office with a relatively high approval rating. Biden’s approval rating has since sunk below that of former President Donald Trump ‘s at the same point in his term, and members of his own party are losing confidence in his ability to lead on key issues.
Biden’s rating remained steady at about the 52 percent mark until mid-June 2021. What followed were three crises facing America and what seemed to be less-than-accurate predictions from the Biden administration on the Omicron COVID surge, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and soaring inflation.
“Public faith in presidents is like a block of ice, it melts slowly,” Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, told Newsweek . “No one event will rupture public faith in the White House to work but multiple failures will generate a crisis of confidence among the public.”
“For the Biden White House, it’s death by a thousand paper cuts,” he said. “Small mistakes or missteps add up to perceptions about White House incompetence to assess and handle big domestic and international issues.”
The Omicron Surge
In his first year in the Oval Office, Biden celebrated the Fourth of July with America’s “independence from COVID-19.”
From the South Lawn of the White House, Biden told the nation, “Two hundred and forty-five years ago, we declared our independence from a distant king. Today, we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus ,” noting that the virus “has not been vanquished.”
“We all know powerful variants have emerged, like the Delta variant, but the best defense against these variants is to get vaccinated,” the president said in his speech.
Barbara Perry, the University of Virginia’s director of presidential studies, pointed out to Newsweek that the state of the pandemic had improved at the time of Biden’s remark, but it just turned out that “it was the calm before the storm.”
Five months later, on December 1, public health authorities announced the country’s first confirmed Omicron case. Although less severe than Delta, the Omicron variant is four times more contagious than Delta. The transmissibility of Omicron—alongside the variant’s emergence over the holidays, when many were gathered indoors—quickly made it the most dominant strain of the virus in the U.S.
With COVID rapidly spreading ahead of the winter holidays, Americans faced significant wait times to be tested and vaccinated. Cases surged, prompting some areas to reinstate mask mandates, and in January, deaths from COVID-19 under Biden surpassed those experienced while Trump was in office.
On December 23, with a 43 percent approval rating, Biden acknowledged to ABC News that people being unable to access tests was not “good enough” and that he wished he considered ordering hundreds of millions of at-home tests months prior. However, Biden denied his testing strategy was a “failure.”
While Biden’s July statements aimed to provide a positive outlook at the time, Rottinghaus said, “in retrospect they look like policy incompetence.”
Perry acknowledged that the unprecedented nature of COVID has been difficult for anyone to predict but said Biden’s remarks in July were likely too optimistic. She said that even though Biden has continuously called on the nation to get their shots, Trump’s downplaying of the virus had done irreversible damage to the public’s perception of the pandemic.
“Do we blame presidents, then, when people don’t follow the president? That’s an interesting question. Because is that poor leadership?” Perry said.
Withdrawal From Afghanistan
As the pullout of American forces from Afghanistan neared, there were growing concerns from those who witnessed the Vietnam War that there were parallels to be drawn between the two withdrawals . Many veterans worried that the world would see another rushed exit that echoed what the State Department described as the most “ambitious helicopter evacuation in history.”
Asked about those fears on July 8, Biden told the press, “The Taliban is not the south—the North Vietnamese army.”
“There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy in the—of the United States from Afghanistan,” he said. “It is not at all comparable.”
Just a little over a month later, the U.S. scrambled to complete a full withdrawal of its embassy in Kabul within 72 hours. Images from Afghanistan showing military helicopters evacuating diplomats from the U.S. compound flooded social media and fierce criticism fell on Biden’s shoulders.
As troops rushed to meet Biden’s August 31 deadline for leaving Afghanistan, the president’s approval rating fell massively. On August 30, the percentage of Americans who disapproved of Biden overtook the number of Americans who approved. By September, Biden was averaging a 48 percent disapproval rating.
Even though Biden had been following public opinion indicating that it was time to leave Afghanistan, according to polls, people turned on Biden after seeing the pictures of the crowds on the tarmac of the Kabul international airport and hearing of the 13 U.S. service members who were killed in a terror attack.
“The American public is fickle,” Perry said.
She noted that it was the Trump administration that signed the deal with the Taliban—a reason Biden himself cited for not changing the timeline for leaving Afghanistan.
Despite potentially being “boxed in” by Trump’s agreement, given what Biden’s team knew from the scenes of Saigon, Perry said, to this day, she still does not understand why the Biden administration did not approach the withdrawal with more care.
“As in Vietnam, there is no good way to end a war that you’re losing. There is no clean extrication from a war that you are losing,” she said. “We were losing in Vietnam and we were losing in Afghanistan.”
Last summer, Biden marked the first six months of his administration by delivering remarks on the economy. At the time, more than 3 million new jobs had been added and Biden celebrated “the fastest growth, I’m told, at this point in any administration’s history.”
“We also know that as our economy has come roaring back, we’ve seen some price increases,” Biden said on July 19, adding that “some folks have raised worries that this could be a sign of persistent inflation.” Citing his financial experts, Biden insisted that rising prices “were expected and expected to be temporary.”
The increases in costs were what economists call “transitory effects,” Biden said.
Biden has repeatedly referred to soaring consumer costs as “Putin’s price hike,” referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the shift of blame has not sat well with Americans who just want to see lower prices at the gas pump and the grocery store.
“While Biden’s approval rating on his handling of the pandemic is now positive, his approval remains low, largely because of inflation,” Democratic pollster Carly Cooperman told Newsweek .
Inflation, which reached a 40-year high this month, has been a particularly difficult issue for Biden to address because of the few tools he has to actually drive down prices and because lowering inflation would likely come at the cost of his administration’s low unemployment rate.
Since monetary policy is supposed to be under the power of the Federal Reserve, Perry said that of all the economic issues for a president to address directly, inflation is the hardest.
The president “has the least amount of control over that on one of the economic issues that has the most impact on the most people,” she explained. “So at all times, he’s going to try to lessen the blow and not go out to the people and say, ‘Well, it’s as high as it’s been in 40 years, and it’s probably gonna go higher.'”
Giving Americans the cold, hard truth was something Jimmy Carter did in his 1979 Crisis of Confidence speech. But the next year, he lost in a landslide election to Ronald Reagan.
“As inflation is top-of-mind for voters, Biden needs to take on this issue directly, both by connecting with voters about the increasingly high price of food and gas as well as by focusing on passing inflation-fighting measures,” Cooperman said. “Biden is now making that shift. He has recently called tackling inflation his ‘top priority.'”