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Biden’s extended summer slump imperils Democrats

President Biden waves from the stage during a Virginia campaign event with Terry McAuliffe.
President Biden appeared with Terry McAuliffe, Virginia’s Democratic candidate for governor, at an event in July. More recently, McAuliffe has said Biden’s unpopularity is hurting his campaign.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press )

After an initial five months of relative stability, President Biden‘s popularity slipped in mid-June, slid more steeply in July and settled into a dismal state in September. Now, Democratic fortunes depend heavily on his uncertain prospects for recovery.

Biden’s decline has weakened his hand in negotiations with Congress — and in turn, the wrangling in Congress over his legislative program has worsened his decline.

And in our increasingly parliamentary political system, where even many local elections become mini-referenda on the leadership of the two major parties, the president’s standing has immediate consequences.

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The clearest example right now comes from Virginia, where Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic former governor now seeking to regain the job, has openly said that Biden’s problems are hurting his chances against the Republican, Glenn Youngkin, a wealthy businessman who has been endorsed by former President Trump.

Biden won Virginia last year by just over 10 percentage points, but recent polls have shown a tight race for governor.

“We are facing a lot of headwinds from Washington,” McAuliffe said Tuesday during a virtual rally with supporters. “As you know, the president is unpopular today, unfortunately, here in Virginia, so we’ve got to plow through.”

Losing swing voters

Plowing through may be tough. Virginia, one of only two states that holds its election for governor the year after a presidential contest, has a pattern of turning against the party in power nationally.

Since 1974, the state, which doesn’t allow governors to run for consecutive terms, has only once elected a governor of the same party as the person in the White House. The lucky winner in that one exception was McAuliffe, who gained his first term in 2013, the year after President Obama‘s reelection.

McAuliffe’s victory that year solidified the state’s shift to the left — Republicans have been shut out of its top offices ever since.

Virginia’s Democratic leanings may yet save his comeback effort — although the polls have tightened, most continue to show McAuliffe leading — but they also clearly raise the stakes for Democrats.

If Youngkin wins in November, the results will be widely — and probably correctly — seen as a sign of disaffection with the president and his party, one that’s likely to further demoralize Democratic elected officials, donors and activists going into the midterm election year.

Unfortunately for Biden — and McAuliffe — there’s probably not much the president can do in the short run to reverse his slide. It may have been worsened by missteps, but the decline reflects larger factors that lie largely outside his control.

The COVID-19 pandemic almost certainly counts as the biggest of those.

The pandemic had much to do with Biden’s victory last year — the sense that Trump had terribly mishandled the government’s response to the virus energized his opponents and turned key blocs of swing voters toward Biden. And in the early months of his administration, the smooth rollout of vaccines buoyed Biden’s support.

The start of Biden’s slide closely matches the shift in public feeling away from optimism about the pandemic as the wave of infections from the Delta variant worsened. He may have added to voters’ disappointment by making overly rosy forecasts, but the shift in public mood, alone, would have driven down Biden’s standing.

In April, for example, 61% of American adults surveyed in an NBC News poll said they believed the “worst is behind us” regarding the pandemic. Only 19% said the “worst is yet to come.” By mid-August, that sentiment had dramatically worsened, with respondents by 42% to 37% saying the worst still lay ahead.

The Delta wave has started to recede in much of the country, with case numbers nationwide peaking in early September and hospitalizations about a week later, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Deaths, which lag a few weeks behind, have only recently started to turn downward. But amid continued controversies about masking and vaccinations, the public may be slow to shift back toward optimism even if the numbers continue to improve.

The surge of infections also prolonged the pandemic’s economic disruption. Inflation spikes and supply shortages have continued, and consumers remain downbeat. The widely followed University of Michigan index of consumer sentiment found in September that the share of households that expected to be better off a year from now had fallen to 30%, the lowest point in five years.

Layer on top of that the damage that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan did to Biden’s image of competence and the sense of renewed gridlock in Congress, and it’s not surprising that the president’s standing has dropped.

How much has he slipped? Polls vary, but the average maintained by FiveThirtyEight.org has 44% of Americans approving compared with 48% disapproving, down from 53% to 40% at the start of June.

Gallup, which has measured presidential approval for decades, has Biden’s standing very close to that average, 43% approval, which puts him slightly better than Trump and slightly worse than Obama at this point in their tenures.

Democrats by and large have stuck with Biden, much as Republican voters resolutely stood with Trump during his tenure. But independents and weak partisans — swing voters, in other words — have shifted against him, several polls have shown.

Biden has blamed Republicans such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for making matters worse by impeding efforts to defeat the pandemic. History strongly suggests, however, that swing voters, who tend not to closely follow the news, blame the person in the White House when things go bad.

The possible good news for Biden is that some of the trends that have hurt him may have bottomed out.

If the Delta wave continues to ebb, the country could feel significantly more confident about the course of the pandemic by the time Thanksgiving comes around. And with more and more Americans getting vaccinated — in part because of the employer vaccine mandates that Biden has pushed — the odds have gotten better that the country can avoid another big wave of illness in the winter.

Greater confidence about COVID-19 could yield greater confidence about the economy.

And despite repeated delays and setbacks, the narrow Democratic majorities in the House and Senate still seem likely to agree on a legislative package in the next few weeks. If so, it will represent a compromise that neither wing of the party will entirely love, but would still represent a major victory for Biden and his “Build Back Better” agenda.

Gaining approval of new government programs isn’t a panacea, as Obama learned with the passage of the Affordable Care Act. But presidents do usually benefit when voters feel that they’re winning things, just as they typically suffer when gridlock dominates.

If the pandemic, the economy and the legislative calendar begin to break Biden’s way, the slump of the past three months could turn into a blip. If not, however, Terry McAuliffe won’t be the only blue-state politician singing the blues.

The politics of oil spills

In the aftermath of the oil spill off the coast of Orange County, state officials have turned up the volume on calls to phase out off-shore production, Andrew Campa reported. “It’s time once and for all to disabuse ourselves that this has to be part of our future,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said. “This is part of our past.”

Federal regulation of oil platforms has been dogged by problems for years, Connor Sheets, Adam Elmahrek, Robert Lopez and Rosanna Xia reported. Regulators have admitted that inspection requirements for pipelines like the one that ruptured in the current spill are inadequate, and environmentalists complain that federal authorities rely too heavily on oil companies to conduct their own checks of their infrastructure.

Enough is enough, George Skelton wrote in his column. It’s time to phase out offshore oil production in California.

California members of Congress demanded that federal agencies give more information about the oil spill, Nolan McCaskill and Sheets reported.

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The latest from Washington

Democrats are divided over how much Biden’s agenda should benefit the well-off, Jennifer Haberkorn and Noah Bierman reported. Progressives have gravitated in recent years toward so-called universal programs, like Social Security, which benefit nearly everyone regardless of income.

The experience of the Affordable Care Act pushed them in that direction. In the healthcare law, the phaseout of benefits for people with incomes near or above the median generated lots of political ill will, convincing many Democrats that universal programs would be more politically palatable.

But as they try to scale back the cost of Biden’s proposed social programs, some Democrats, especially Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, have pushed for excluding upper-income families from benefits. That’s meeting resistance from other Democrats, including some from high-cost parts of the country where a $250,000 family income doesn’t go as far as it does elsewhere.

Biden touted vaccine mandates during a trip to the Chicago area on Thursday, Chris Megerian reported. “Vaccination requirements are tough medicine,” and pushing for them “wasn’t my first instinct,” Biden said. But “they’re game-changing for our country,” he added.

Can the U.S. shield a “state secret” that’s not a secret? As David Savage reported, the Supreme Court is examining that question in a case involving Guantanamo inmate Abu Zubaydah, who was tortured by CIA contractors in a so-called “black site” in Poland. A Polish court is investigating the abuse, and Abu Zubaydah’s lawyers want two of the contractors to be required to testify there. The government wants to block their testimony on the grounds that the existence of the Polish sites remains a state secret, even though the president of Poland has publicly confirmed their existence.

America’s democratic system seems to need radical changes, and many academics and other nongovernment experts have proposed potential reforms. But, as Nick Goldberg wrote, the U.S. has gone half a century without significant amendments to the Constitution, and the prospects for change seem distant.

Arizona officials, testifying to a House committee, decried the effort by state Republican leaders to use a sketchy audit to undermine confidence in the 2020 election results, Erin Logan reported.

The Biden administration is expected to discuss a new security agreement with Mexico, Tracy Wilkinson and Cecilia Sanchez reported. The discussions will take place Friday in Mexico City during meetings involving a delegation of U.S. officials that is slated to include Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland.

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The latest from California

Former officials Fabian Nuñez, Barbara Boxer and Antonio Villaraigosa have led an exodus from Mercury Public Affairs, a powerful lobbying firm, Seema Mehta and Melanie Mason reported. The departure of the former Assembly speaker, former senator and former L.A. mayor involves a financial dispute between the firm’s California branch and its parent company.

California lawmakers are eyeing a crackdown on who can can opt out of school COVID vaccine mandates, Melody Gutierrez reported.

In a windowless room, in a boxy state office building a block from the Capitol, 14 individuals are busy mapping the political future of California, Mark Barabak wrote in his look at the state’s Citizens Redistricting Commission.

Newsom signed a bill Thursday with a handful of long-sought reforms to the Medical Board of California. But as Gutierrez reported, critics of the board said the changes don’t address their main concern — that the panel is too lenient in its punishment of negligent doctors.

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco was once a member of the Oath Keepers, an extremist group with ties to the Jan. 6 insurrection, Lila Seidman reported. Bianco acknowledged his former membership, which dates to 2014 — but did not denounce the group after the information came to light through a data leak.

The deadly toll of extreme heat

As the climate warms, more Americans are exposed to extreme heat and many die. While some states have moved to address this worsening problem, California has lagged behind, according to a richly detailed set of stories by Anna Phillips, Tony Barboza, Ruben Vives and Sean Greene. Their reporting indicates that 3,900 Californians have died of heat exposure in the last 10 years. That’s six times more than official statistics report.

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