Biden’s Very, Very Modest Comeback Stalls11 min read
Tom with the BTRTN April 2022 Month in Review.
A few months ago we posited that Biden, though in the darkest
hours of his relatively young presidency, was reasonably well-positioned for a
2022 comeback that just might save the midterms. The keys were to
manage well what was in his control, and to get a little bit of luck on the rest.
There have been nascent signs of such a comeback over the past few
months, a few crocuses scattered here and there, largely driven by the massive
decline in new COVID cases from the Omicron surge, and the surprisingly positive
developments in the Russia/Ukraine war. But as of the end of April,
those crocuses have withered and the Biden comeback – as measured by his
approval rating and other key data — is in full stall mode, with few potential
catalysts on the near-term horizon.
Before we review the specifics, let’s make clear the political
implications of the stall. Without a comeback of some kind, the
Democrats will certainly lose the House. The key metric here –
nearly infallible as a prediction tool — is the generic ballot. Right
now the GOP is up +2 points (44% to 42%) in that hypothetical race, which does
not sound like much. But the Democrats have to get to +3, or better
yet +5, to have a real chance to keep the House. That GOP +2 advantage has been
as unmovable as Biden’s own approval rating, which has remained stubbornly at
And the more unlikely a Democratic hold on the House looks, the
more money and resources will be shifted, on the margin, to holding the Senate,
which at this juncture is just about a 50/50 proposition. Senate
races are far more driven than House races by the candidates themselves, rather
than the macro political environment, and the Democrats have a solid shot at
keeping the Senate despite the lack of positive momentum in the Biden comeback.
Below, in italics, was the BTRTN articulation, back in early
February, of the presumed Biden Comeback Plan. Each point is
followed by a review of the current status — through the month of April — of
COVID on the
decline. The Omicron surge will likely
be over in a month; the mask wars will be over; life, with prudent precautions,
will come roaring back in a summer of fun. All Biden needs here is
good luck: no new deadly variants.
The Omicron surge did end, and new cases dropped sharply, but
alas, the new variant did arrive. The Omicron
BA.2 variant is more transmissible as the original Omicron, though not as deadly
as Alpha or Delta, has resulted in an uptick of new cases in the
last month, and the potential for a larger surge. The Biden Administration has matched this
mixed scenario, which is neither a “crisis” nor “the end,” with (more) mixed
messages. For example, Dr. Anthony Fauci
announced, a few days ago, that “we are
certainly, right now, in this country, out of the pandemic phase” — and then, almost immediately after, said
that he would not attend the White House Correspondents Association
Dinner due to COVID concerns.
Gridiron dinner was another fiasco, as any number of Democratic luminaries who
attended sans mask got infected, and
this was followed by the couldn’t-be-worse optic of Kamala Harris getting COVID
not long after she received her second booster shot. All in all, the decline of COVID, such as it
is, has helped Biden – but the pandemic simply is not over, and that creates
a messaging muddle, and COVID messaging was already (and remains) a Biden
economic growth. With the infrastructure bill beginning to find its
way to local projects, the Biden Administration can take credit for the 4% GDP
growth expected in 2022, well above that of the pre-pandemic Trump years, and
the Obama years as well.
Despite last week’s announcement
that the economy contracted by 1.4% in the first quarter, Biden has done well
here. The GDP blip was caused by
inventory issues by and large, with the good news being: 1) that underlying consumer demand remains strong,
and 2) unemployment has dropped further to 3.6%, the lowest in 53 years. But all of that evidence of economic vitality
has been overwhelmed by continued bad news on inflation.
inflation. With a new report showing
inflation up to 7.5%, and gas prices at a peak, this may be the toughest at
all, a classic “kitchen table” issue difficult for presidents to
influence. But the Fed is expected to use fiscal instruments, in the
form of interest rate hikes, to begin to put the brakes on the boom…that and
the easing of the supply chain issues could at least show progress on managing
inflation by November.
Inflation continues to roar, and is now up to 8.5%, and while Biden is
pulling out all the stops to influence it, including tapping the national
reserve and allowing more oil leases, there is no short-term escape from a
misery that he did not cause. Gas prices
did fall in the last month, but by and large, controlling inflation without
triggering a full-blown recess is up to the Fed now.
Breyer and Roe: Biden will
benefit greatly from being able to deliver on his promise to name a Black woman
to the Supreme Court, and there will be a huge spotlight on the announcement
and confirmation hearings. On top of what is clearly going to be
some kind of adverse ruling by the Roberts Court on Roe v. Wade, and Biden’s strong
federal judge appointment track record, these issues will energize Democrats to
a voting frenzy in the midterms.
Biden’s appointment of DC Federal Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to
the bench was a clear win, and it passed the Senate with three GOP votes to
boot. But the “huge spotlight” on this clearly
this historic announcement never happened, as the events in Ukraine
overshadowed it and every other political development in that time frame. The abortion wars will dominate the news in
June when SCOTUS renders its decision, but with Ukraine, COVID, inflation,
immigration and even the January 6 Commission hearings all in the mix, who
knows whether the abortion wars will land the punch the Democrats really need.
[Note: This was written before the
stunning May 2 publication by Politico of Judge Samuel Alito’s draft opinion that
strikes down Roe.]
Russia/Ukraine. Biden has been
lauded – on a bipartisan basis by politicians, and, in surveys, by Americans of
both parties as well – for his management of the Ukraine crisis thus
far. He seems to have positioned himself into an unlikely “win/win”
position. If the Russians invade Ukraine, he will be seen as leading
a unified NATO in exacting demanding economic sanctions while supplying the
Ukrainians with sophisticated weaponry and aid. And if Putin blinks,
all the better. Either way, U.S. leadership has already been
acknowledged, prestige restored, and Biden is benefitting greatly.
With the onset of the actual invasion, Biden’s response in Ukraine
continues to be largely flawless. The
Russian abandoned their Kyiv siege, the Ukrainians sank a Russian battleship,
and the new Donbas offensive is running into the same stiff Ukrainian
opposition that stymied them in Kyiv. Putin’s
ruthless genocide has been condemned worldwide.
Weapons are flowing in from the West, and Biden just asked Congress for
a mammoth $33 billion aid package – half the size of Russia’s defense budget —
underlining his commitment. Europe is
now considering a ban on Russian oil and gas imports, following the US move,
demonstrating yet again the unity and depth of western support. A nuclear disaster has thus far been
avoided. Overall, what more could anyone
ask of Biden? And yet, while Biden’s
ratings on foreign policy have edged up a bit, even some Democrats believe he
is not doing enough.
ISIS. Knocking off the
ISIS leader did not hurt on that front, either.
A minor win that certainly did not hurt, but nor did it really
help, and now is long forgotten.
Trump, January 6
and “reasonable political discourse.” The self-inflicted wound the RNC just dealt the GOP
can hardly be underestimated, putting January 6 right smack back on the table,
deflecting attention from Biden just when he was at this lowest. And
that term – “reasonable political discourse” – when repeated over and over by
Dem candidates atop insurrection footage, will be the gift that keeps on
giving, defining today’s GOP much the way Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative
facts” defined the Trump White House. The January
6 Commission’s hearings and findings, plus the Trump court cases in
Georgia and New York, will continue to keep Trump front and center for the GOP,
and effectively once again “on the ballot” in November.
The Commission hearings, now scheduled for June, will be “must see
TV,” and the nuggets being leaked out, including the McCarthy Tapes, are explosive. But one has to be extremely skeptical that
they will change anyone’s mind at this point.
Despite the tapes, McCarthy marches on, as Trump chose to view McCarthy’s
hypocrisy as a sign of Trump’s own power, his deathgrip hold on the GOP, rather
than exposing McCarthy as a traitor.
Inoculate the vulnerabilities: All that would go a long way toward setting the
tables for success in the midterms, but it would sure help if Biden and the
Democrats could find a way to talk about three issues that the GOP will try to
force into all campaign conversations: crime, immigration and
education (that is, Critical Race Theory). Biden has already
disavowed “Defund the Police” and embraced new New York City Mayor (and former
cop) Eric Adams, so he is making progress on crime. He needs
reassuring talking points on the others as well.
Immigration has become an albatross for Biden and coming to grips
with it is no longer a “bonus,” it is a “must.”
His decision to end the public health authority, a.k.a. Title 42 in late
May (put on hold by a federal judge), while laudable, is causing a great deal
of pain for moderate, battleground state Democrats in an election year. The end of Title 42 is expected to greatly
increase the flow of immigrants fleeing to America across the southern border,
an issue on which Biden already has vulnerability.
#2: Soft Infrastructure Bill. The soft bill may be too toxic, at this point, to take on in
the middle of an election year. But if a scaled down bill – say $750
million – could be cobbled together with the most popular elements of the old
bill that Manchin could support – say, the climate change provisions and the
Childcare Tax Credit with some needs-based test (assuming they could be passed
within reconciliation rules) – the passage of such a bill would be a
Manchin has indeed expressed some openness to a
scaled-back BBB, but at this point it seems unlikely to be resurrected. If there is to be a mini-BBB, Schumer needs
to make it happen soon before the crowded Senate calendar and the campaign
trail render it impossible.
Down below you will see the net effect of all of this over the
past three months as measured in key polling data, and the answer is: not much.
While Biden has shown modest improvement since January on some key
issues – notably foreign policy and COVD management – it has not been enough to
move the overall needle, as his approval rating remains stuck at 43%.
There is still an opportunity – perhaps — for Biden to make some
headway between now and Election Day.
Fed actions could slow inflation; the Ukraine story could continue to
provide positive fodder on his foreign policy chops; the SCOTUS abortion
decision [See note above] and January
6th Commission output could each both outrage and inspire the
Democrats, and maybe a mini-BBB bill gets done.
But the window to truly upend the current narrative in time to rescue
the midterms is closing, and fast.
Sarah Palin is running to Congress, for
the House seat no vacant with the death of long-term Alaska representative Don
Need we say more?
Joe Biden’s approval rating for the month of March remained
stagnant at 43% for the third consecutive month, with a net negative of -8 percentage points.
HOW BIDEN IS HANDLING KEY ISSUES
Biden’s ratings had shown material improvement since January on both COVID
management and foreign policy, but with no further uptick this month, that
momentum has stalled.
In April polling, on average the GOP continues to lead the
Democrats on the generic ballot by a 44/42 margin. Using BTRTN’s
proprietary models (which have been extremely accurate in midterm elections),
if this lead was still in place on Election Day in 2022, the GOP would pick up
about 20 seats and take over the House with some room to spare, though hardly
in the magnitude of the losses experienced by Bill Clinton in his first
midterms (-54 seats) or Barack Obama (-63), or even Donald Trump (-40).
The “Bidenometer” took a tumble from March to April, from 59 to 12,
driven mostly by the contraction of the economy in Q1 of this year, and a 5%
drop in the Dow. Gas prices actually decreased this month, a positive sign, as did unemployment, while consumer
confidence remained the same (and still surprisingly high given all the adverse
As a reminder, this measure is designed to provide an objective
answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980
Reagan campaign: “Are you better off than you were four years
ago?” We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we
better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or
worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump
This exclusive BTRTN measure is comprised of five indicative data
points: the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of
gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP. The
measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from
the inaugural to the present time.
The +12 means that, on average, the five measures are 12% higher than
they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below). With a Bidenometer of +12, the economy is performing better
under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office. Unemployment
is much lower, the Dow is much higher, as is consumer
confidence. Only gas prices have moved in the wrong direction under
Biden. Even the recent GDP blip is
better than the -3.5% that marked Trump’s last quarter.
Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, you can see
from the chart below that under Clinton the measure ended at +55. It
declined from +55 to only +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession
at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s
recovery. Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the
shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it. Now we have seen
it move upward to +12 under Biden.
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Notes on methodology:
BTRTN calculates our monthly
approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or
weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You
Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and
does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters. The
outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more
For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election
time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly
generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You
Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.
The Bidenometer aggregates a set of
economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of
aggregated indicators at the time of the Biden Inaugural on January 20, 2021,
on an average percentage change basis. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether
the country is better off economically now versus when Trump left office. The
indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average,
the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.