ARLINGTON, RESIDENCE by Robert E. Lee, and a cemetery hewn for revenge on his lawn, is barely in Virginia these days. The tony apartments in the city and THIS companies have long made it feel like an extension of Washington. That, in turn, made it relatively safe for Joe Biden, on a cold and windy evening this week, to cross the Potomac and dip his toes in the race for governor of Virginia.
It would have been awkward if he hadn’t, given the number of Democratic heavy hitters who flooded the state as the contest between Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin tightened. But no one expected the increasingly troubled president to shift many votes. Even the irrepressible Mr. McAuliffe, a force field of positivity and Mr. Biden’s friend for 40 years, admits he’s unpopular in the Commonwealth. This was implicit in the arrangements for the presidential visit. Only a small corner of a large Arlington park had been fenced and lighted for this – to create the safest possible space in the most trusted Democratic city in a state that Mr Biden won last year by ten points.
Only a modest Democratic crowd duly showed up. And its members seemed ambivalent about the president. Asked about their opinion on him, some said they were “indifferent”, others said they had “no sight”. Several of those interviewed by Lexington said they didn’t know anyone who was enthusiastic about it. “That’s not really what it is,” said one woman, shaking a “Terry for Virginia” sign. Only one person, an Indian-born woman huddled in the dark, richly congratulated the administration. She worked for a hospital lobby and loved her increased health expenses.
As Mr. Biden’s approval ratings have plunged in recent months, a strong case has been made in his defense. Most presidents lose support from their first year, as the thermostatic character of public opinion asserts itself. And indeed, his 56% drop in approval after taking office in his 40s today is similar to the falls suffered by Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Mr Biden has also faced formidable headwinds, with the resurgence of covid-19, the economic havoc it has caused and the fact that half of Americans haven’t heard a good word about it, so many the media have become polarized. The story is against him in Virginia too. As one of the first states to vote after a general election, it often bleeds the nose of the party that occupies the White House. Yet such rationalizations cannot lessen the gravity of his situation.
Mr. Obama fell from such a high level after his first election that he has remained in positive territory. Mr. Trump was never popular outside his base, but the more unpopular he became, the more his members liked him. Carrying the fight against the liberal mainstream was his thing. Neither factor for improvement applies to Mr. Biden. He won by a much narrower margin than that of Mr. Obama, who in himself questioned the biden shtick (his promise to unite the country against Trumpism). And that tension increased as its numbers worsened.
In Arlington, Mr Biden once again focused, in his garish manner, on his predecessor. “Remember this: I ran against Donald Trump and Terry is running against a sidekick of Donald Trump! The limits of that message were exposed in the general election, not only by Mr. Trump’s strong losing performance, but also by the little damage suffered by other Republican candidates by association. And the former president is even less bogie today. Most voters, especially independents, among whom Mr Biden’s downfall was the most abrupt, seem to have pushed him out of their minds. Plus, it gets harder and harder to come across as a unifier, not a divider, when more than half of the country thinks you’re doing badly.
If Mr. Biden cannot reverse this impression, the outcome for his party will be grim. Midterms are a referendum on the president, not his predecessor. Its disastrous assessments therefore prepare Democrats to go into hiding. History suggests that they are consistent with their loss of control of both chambers. It also shows how difficult it will be for Mr Biden to make his way through.
Of his recent predecessors, only Bill Clinton achieved a great comeback in peacetime public opinion, and he had the advantages of excellent economics and keen political skills. Mr. Biden has neither. It is above all linked to covid-19, the kind of fundamental that is much more determinant of political success or failure than most reports suggest. Political performance tends to be a less important factor; but again, Mr. Biden is in trouble.
By recent standards, his administration has functioned honorably. It is run by serious people, unlike its predecessor. And he seems on the right track, despite the slim Democratic majority in Congress, to signing more important laws in his first year than Mr. Obama. The debacle in Afghanistan, which hit Biden’s ratings hard, was a blemish, but received global coverage in part because of the uniqueness of the administration. Such incompetence, expected of the Trump administration, is atypical of that of Mr. Biden, except in one respect, his ability to sell his goals and accomplishments, which he and his party are abject against.
Hardly any non-lobbyist in the Arlington crowd could name an important thing the administration had done. Most knew Congress Democrats were haggling over the cost of a spending program, but struggled to remember almost all of the climate and social policies it contained. And it was arguably the most educated, trendiest center-left place in the country. The odds of independent voters in Milwaukee or El Paso having half an idea of what Mr. Biden is attempting appear to be close to zero.
In his labyrinth
Mr. Trump always sold his record, even when it didn’t exist. In contrast, Mr Biden and his party are not advocating for what they actually do. Mr. Clinton’s guru, James Carville, suggests they don’t like the art of selling. Or maybe Mr. Biden isn’t good at it. Either way, he’s lagging behind. If elections are about the future, as Mr. Clinton liked to say, they can’t just be about Mr. Trump. ■
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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Nobody Likes Joe Biden”