Sep 7, 2021

Biden's approval plummets.

Biden's approval plummets.
Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America

Does it mean anything for 2022?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.”

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We’re covering Biden’s approval ratings, plus a question about who is really “in control.”

Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America

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Shanah tovah.

Happy New Year to all my Jewish readers out there! Rosh Hashanah, or the “head of the year” in Hebrew, began last night and runs until sundown tomorrow. For Jews, this time of year ushers in a couple of weeks of repentance and reflection that end with the much more somber and holy day of Yom Kippur. For now, you can wish people “happy new year,” say “Shanah Tovah” or “chag sameach” (which literally translates to “happy festival”). I’ll be celebrating tonight with a fish dinner and some apples and honey. May it be a sweet, joyful year!

Quick hits.

  1. The Taliban has been preventing at least four planes from departing Kabul that have several hundred people aboard seeking to escape. Yesterday, the group also said it had taken control of the Panjshir Valley, the last pocket of resistance in Afghanistan. (The takeover)
  2. Six Palestinian prisoners escaped one of Israel’s most secure prisons by digging a tunnel through the floor and out beyond the prison’s wall. They are still at large as a manhunt is underway. (The escape)
  3. The death toll from Hurricane Ida rose to 60 over the holiday weekend, with more than half of the victims coming from the northeast. (The toll)
  4. The U.S. added just 235,000 new jobs last month, falling well short of economists’ predictions and marking a slowdown of the economic recovery. (The bad news)
  5. The Justice Department vowed to protect women seeking abortions in Texas after the Supreme Court allowed a new ban after six weeks to go into effect. (The statement)

What D.C. is talking about

Biden’s approval rating. Over the last two weeks, President Joe Biden’s approval rating has taken a nosedive for the first time in his presidency. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll has his overall approval rating at 44 percent, down six points from June. His handling of the economy is at 45 percent, down seven points from April. His handling of the pandemic is at 52 percent, down 10 points from June. Today, 47 percent of Americans say their risk of getting sick from the coronavirus is “moderate” or “high,” an increase of 18 percentage points from late June.

According to the RealClearPolitics’ average of several major pollsters, President Biden’s average approval rating is 45.6 percent vs. 49.1 percent who disapprove. FiveThirtyEight has it at 46.1 percent approve and 48.3 disapprove. In April, Biden’s approval ratings were as high as 55.2 percent with a 39.6 percent disapproval rating, according to the RCP average. Here is how the trend lines have looked, according to RCP:

Screenshot of the Real Clear Politics page.

Below, we’ll take a look at some commentary about these changing numbers from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

The left is worried about the dip, but still supports Biden’s agenda.

“There is a laundry list of reasons for this,” Jamelle Bouie wrote. “Not only is the United States still in the grip of a pandemic, but also the Delta variant of the coronavirus has led to record infections and deaths in Florida, Texas and other states with relatively low vaccination rates (and where officials have taken a stand against mitigation efforts). At the same time that Delta took hold, Biden also faced a huge backlash from the press and his partisan opponents over the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, which began in chaotic fashion with the collapse of the Afghan National Army, the subsequent advance of the Taliban and of course the suicide bombing in Kabul that killed 13 U.S. service members… And as seen in the latest jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the economy is growing at a slower rate than it did at the start of the summer.

“With that said, there’s another dynamic at work, one that should guide our expectations for how popular Biden is and how popular he could become. Put simply, we’re still quite polarized,” Bouie wrote. One of the most consistent findings from the past 20 years of public opinion research is that each new president is more divisive than the last… Some of this reflects circumstances, some of it reflects the individuals, but most of it is a function of partisan and ideological polarization. Modern presidents have a high floor for public opinion but a low ceiling.”

In The Washington Post, Paul Waldman said Biden is learning good policy is not good politics.

“For instance, before Democrats passed the American Rescue Plan in March — with zero Republican votes in either house of Congress — polls showed it to be almost absurdly popular, with approval reaching into the 70s,” Waldman wrote. “Not only that, it gave direct, visible benefits to people, in the form of stimulus checks and the expanded child tax credit. How much did the public reward Biden for it? Not at all. There was no surge of good will and appreciation; his approval rating before it passed was around 53 percent, and his approval rating after it passed was about 53 percent.

“We’ll almost certainly wind up telling a similar story about the infrastructure bill and the Democrats’ reconciliation bill if and when those are signed into law: The public will like the spending, but it won’t convince them that the president who forced it through is doing a good job,” he added. “The same will probably be true of his entire agenda. Democrats are often advised that because their policy agenda is widely popular with the public — majorities of whom would like to see a higher minimum wage, action on climate change, higher taxes on the wealthy, legalized marijuana, universal background checks and so on — they should move aggressively forward on all those issues without fear. Which they should. But the seemingly logical conclusion — that if they do those popular things, the public will reward them for it — has little if any evidence to support it.”

In New York Magazine, Ed Kilgore said it’s not at all clear how much this dip will matter in the 2022 midterms or 2024 election.

“As I noted in an earlier post, reaction to adverse overseas developments can fade pretty quickly, as occurred soon after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, when Gerald Ford’s approval rating rose significantly as soon as the Mayaguez incident (in which the U.S. freed merchant sailors captured by the Khmer Rouge off the Cambodian coast) replaced the Vietnam collapse in the news,” Kilgore said. “Whatever it portends, Biden’s plunge underwater is hardly unique. According to a UC Santa Barbara analysisof Gallup data, every president dating back to Lyndon Johnson had net-negative approval ratings at some point.

“The most relevant points of comparison to Biden should comfort him,” Kilgore added. “Barack Obama was regularly underwater in weekly Gallup surveys nearly all of 2010, in the first half of 2011, and throughout 2014. But he managed to serve two full terms. And Donald Trump didn’t achieve his first net-positive Gallup approval rating until the spring of 2020, and came close to getting re-elected despite a 46-52 Gallup rating on the eve of the 2020 election.”

What the right is saying.

The right believes the dip shows Biden is losing trust from voters.

In The Hill, Keith Naughton said the poll numbers are both “better” and “worse” than you think.

“This collapse in support spells trouble for the Democrats in the midterm elections,” Naughton said. “Already likely to lose seats, their House majority is looking ever more ephemeral. As the midterm elections are generally a referendum on the president, any slide in his approval and public confidence is a severe problem. The recent experience of Presidents Clinton and Obama is particularly ominous for Democrats. Both Clinton and Obama saw initial strong approval ratings after 100 days, Clinton at 55 percent positive and Obama at 65 percent positive. Yet both saw their approvals fall into the low 40 percent range by mid-term election day… Both Clinton and Obama saw their House majorities collapse, losing 54 and 63 seats, respectively.

“There is good news for Biden,” Naughton added. “Most Americans don’t blame him for the Afghanistan war in general (Bush is mostly blamed, at 62 percent in the Suffolk poll) and they approve getting out. Americans also still don’t put foreign policy at the top of their concerns. In the most recent YouGov benchmark, respondents put health care, the economy and the environment at the top. National security comes in fourth on the list, with just 9 percent ranking it as a top issue — and that is boosted by Republicans who place it on top (for now) at 16 percent.”

In The Washington Post, Henry Olsen said Democrats should be nervous.

“As the pandemic faded into the background with the rise in vaccinations, many American voters started to think about other things,” Olsen wrote. “They saw high inflation and an administration focused more on pushing an unprecedented expansion of federal government power than on economic recovery. The gross incompetence on display now will only add to the sense that the administration is out of touch and out of control.

“Republicans are surely salivating over what might happen next,” Olsen addd. “If Biden placates his party’s vocal progressive base, he will double down on pushing as much of his liberal agenda through as possible. The more he gives them, the likelier a 2010-style GOP tsunami reappears. If he plays for the general election, however, he angers that base. That will increase intraparty strife, which will become a major issue in 2022 as progressives challenge less-leftist incumbents and push for more left-wing policies to motivate the party’s base to vote… Biden’s coalition was always more anti-Trump than pro-Democratic. His declining job approval ratings are a sign of that. The Democratic dilemma won’t go away soon no matter what happens in Afghanistan.”

In The Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove said Biden could sink his party in 2022 and 2024.

“Even in our highly polarized atmosphere, where partisans stubbornly cling to their team colors, Mr. Biden’s approval ratings have plummeted,” Rove wrote. “These losses aren’t only because of Afghanistan. The president’s ratings are dropping on his handling of Covid, the economy, immigration and crime, too. I bet they get worse in the months ahead, despite attempted P.R. resets. “Mr. Biden’s shaky and listless performance has demolished the idea that he’ll be a credible contender in 2024. Also wrecked is any sense that Vice President Kamala Harris is an acceptable heir. The president’s failures and shortcomings are hers as well, while she’s failed to produce success in virtually every responsibility she has been given to handle.

“But who could emerge to replace them?” Rove asked. “Both the White House and the aging apparatchiks of the Democratic Congressional leadership will discourage new faces from making their ambitions known. And Mr. Biden’s actions and Tuesday’s speech diminished what little good will he has among swing voters, which will also hurt Democrats if Republicans make 2022 about checks-and-balances. It ain’t a pretty picture.”

My take.

\We’re a long way from the 2022 midterms.

November 8, 2022, is 427 days away. For context, 427 days ago was July 7, 2020. Around that time, President Donald Trump was commuting Roger Stone’s prison sentence, discussing the prospect of withdrawing from the World Health Organization, and we were just beginning to learn about how Covid-19 spread through the air. In other words: it was a few million headlines ago.

Similarly, talking about this latest poll dip as it relates to the 2022 midterms seems a bit ridiculous to me — and I certainly don’t think it’ll have much bearing on the 2024 elections. Americans have a short memory on issues that impact them in acute ways; they have extraordinarily short memories on foreign policy issues. A year from now, I’m sure Afghanistan will still be something people think about and remember — but it’ll almost certainly have little impact on the election. The state of Covid-19, another return to school, the economy, climate events like wildfires or hurricanes, the situation on the border, a slew of Supreme Court rulings that will come between this October and next — those are the things that will likely animate the 2022 election. And, of course, the things we can’t see or predict now: whatever the next Covid-19 variant or foreign policy blunder or storming of the Capitol events are.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything to learn here, though. In fact, I think there is something critical at work that is good for Biden and his team to recognize now — and important for Republicans and Democrats to know: the middle can still move.

Almost everyone is well aware of the partisan polarization in our country that makes the floor and ceiling for most presidents fixed. And, as Paul Waldman said, those floors and ceilings are becoming more fixed and more polarized with every president. But it’s not very often that we are reminded of the great big middle — a middle that can move and determine the future of the country. Right now, that middle is flexing, and as a result, Biden’s poll numbers are dropping.

The takeaway, regardless of your politics, is that there is still a mobile, moderate, independent, center-ish or incongruent voter whom presidents and political parties need to win over — and one who is genuinely responsive to the news and the results they are seeing in their day-to-day lives. In many ways, it’s a warning shot. Not just for Biden but for Republicans too, who will have to decide on their challenger to coalesce around, and for Democrats more generally, who will need to thread the needle of satisfying their progressive base while also winning over independents in 2022 and 2024. In short: there is no easy, simple path forward to either party winning majorities in 2022 and 2024.

Your questions, answered.

Q: What is your take on the current administration? It is being reported that President Biden had been briefed on the high probability that a quick withdrawal would lead to the chaos that we are witnessing in Afghanistan. There is also the recent SCOTUS ruling that the President's extension of the eviction ban was unconstitutional. The President said that he had gone against the advice of his general counsel and all of the lawyers in the White House. The video of the President stating that he is told what reporters to call on, and comments about I was told to not take questions about Afghanistan. What is going on? Who is controlling the President? If he cannot call on whoever he pleases, there must be a person or persons that are calling the shots. Who is really running this country?

— Alan, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Tangle: As someone who has openly questioned Biden’s capacities, I’m not at all allergic to the idea that he is being puppeteered or railroaded by his team. But there really is not much evidence for it. I’d argue, actually, that there was a lotmore evidence that President Trump was “not in control” of his administration — neverending leaks, backstabbing, policies pushed he clearly didn’t support, bills being written without his input, high-ranking administration officials he chose only to have public falling outs with later, etc. — than there is evidence Biden is not in control of his administration. And frankly, few things have been blown out of proportion by the right-wing media more than this story.

For those of you who missed it: in the midst of the Afghanistan withdrawal, President Biden began taking questions after his remarks at a press conference by saying, “The first person I was instructed to call on was Kelly O'Donnell from NBC.” He was clearly reading off of a list of reporters to pick for questions.

Basically: Biden said the quiet part out loud. I watched the presser live and literally laughed when he did it, only because I found it so incredibly stupid and knew it would immediately be used against him. But it is not new, it’s certainly not unique, and it is definitely not a sign he is being controlled or instructed by anyone. Every single president — including Trump, who was famous for sparring with the media and riffing at pressers — got a list of reporters to call on. It’s part of the business. It’s not just to play the room in a way that makes the president look good, it’s also a result of the insidery ecosystem of D.C. media. Reporters and press teams have relationships, and some reporters will work those press teams to get on the “list” that Biden clumsily announced to the room at the press conference.

Shortly after, headlines popped up all over conservative websites about Biden being “controlled” and “instructed,” and a slew of right-wing pundits began asking “who is really in charge?” It all struck me as exceedingly silly, though. Not only is it normal for presidents and press people to have those lists, it also ignores the fact that Biden took some very difficult questions, and even called on Fox News’ Peter Doocy — one of his most outspoken critics in the press room.

All that’s to say: I think Biden is in control. This is even revealed in part of your question — the fact Biden ignored his general counsel and pushed forward with renewing the eviction moratorium lends credence to the idea that he is throwing his own weight around just as much as it does that he was pressured or being controlled by progressives. Given today’s topic and the current state of play, though, I’m not sure Biden being seen as firmly in control is a major win for him politically.

A story that matters.

2021 was a banner year for Republican policies, despite Democrats having wide-reaching control of the federal government, according to Michael Scherer. “This year alone, 12 states have passed income tax reductions, 17 states have increased voting restrictions that are expected to hit Democratic constituencies more critically, and 18 states have enacted new or expanded school choice programs, according to the tallies kept by interest groups,” Scherer wrote. Despite Democrats controlling the levers in Washington, Republicans are winning many local policy battles with state and judicial control. The Washington Post has the story.


  • 85%. Joe Biden’s approval rating among Democrats, according to the latest NPR/Marist poll.
  • 36%. Joe Biden’s approval rating among independents, according to the latest NPR/Marist poll.
  • 5%. Joe Biden’s approval rating among Republicans, according to the latest NPR/Marist poll.
  • 1 in 3. The number of Americans who experienced a weather disaster this summer.
  • 1 in 5,000. The risk of a breakthrough Covid-19 infection on any given day, according to a new analysis.
  • 1 in 10,000. The risk of a breakthrough Covid-19 infection on any given day if you’re living in an area with high vaccination rates.
  • 59%. The percentage of parents with school-age children who support mask mandates in schools.

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Have a nice day.

A plumber in Leicestershire, England, was offered a record deal after the owner of a music label heard him singing while he fixed his bathroom. Kev Crane spent six weeks working on the bathroom of New Reality Records’ owner Paul Conneally. Throughout his time at the house, Conneally kept hearing Crane singing, and then discovered Crane had actually made an album in his free time. When Conneally heard it, he decided to offer him a deal. The album, Why Can’t I Be You?, has since been released by New Reality Records. (BBC)

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