George H.W. Bush was out of touch. Bill Clinton was untrustworthy. George W. Bush was a Bible-thumping ignoramus. Barack Obama was a radical. Donald Trump was, well, Donald Trump.
What’s Joe Biden?
As American politics has gotten more polarized, it has also focused more and more on the personality of the president — to the point where it became the dominant issue of much of the Trump years.
Personality-based criticism of Biden, though, has so far not stuck. That’s good news for the Democrats, except that it may be making them overconfident.
Republicans made a sustained effort to portray him as doddering last year, but voters ended up being slightly more likely to think that Biden had the mental capacity to be president than Trump did. The Republican tactic may even have backfired by making Biden’s performance look better than it otherwise would have. But Biden’s opponents are still trying to make this case, with new hope every time the president shows his age.
Public views of Biden’s personal qualities remain favorable. Quinnipiac recently found that majorities consider him honest and sympathetic. Pew found that 46% of Americans like the way Biden has conducted himself in office. That’s not a majority, but it’s three times higher than Trump’s rating last year.
Republicans have also tried tying Biden to the hard left, as when Trump called him "a Trojan horse for socialism" in his convention speech. That’s not working either. Significantly more voters consider him "moderate" than "very liberal."
The former president, whose talent for insult is among his greatest political gifts, has recently been reduced to calling the incumbent "saintly Joe Biden." It’s a punch that doesn’t land, and is directed more at the press than at the president anyway.
Democrats are giddy about the Republicans’ failure to pin a pejorative label on Biden. Matt Bennett, head of the Democratic think tank Third Way, told the Financial Times it’s a sign that Biden is doing well: "He has made almost no serious mistakes. He has had absolutely no scandals, and he has done things that people like."
Other polls have added to these Democratic good spirits. A small majority of the public approves of the job Biden has been doing, and his major initiatives on spending and taxes have been popular.
Yet Biden has plenty of vulnerabilities nonetheless. The same Pew poll that found widespread approval for Biden’s personal traits found that a majority of Americans don’t think he shares their views.
He’s getting very low ratings on his handling of immigration and guns. He has taken some unpopular positions. Voter identification requirements, which Biden wants to ban, have strong support from voters. Statehood for the District of Columbia, which Biden backs, usually polls badly.
Surveys are finding public qualms about all the spending. Biden’s already got a slightly negative rating on the issue. If he succeeds in passing two more $2 trillion bills, that concern might well grow. (If he fails, he will have a different problem to deal with.)
None of this means that Republicans are destined to turn Biden unpopular. But they have material with which to work. Biden is less than an imposing figure: He won the electorally decisive states by only 44,000 voters, and he was running against an incumbent who had been unpopular for his entire term and whose numbers on the top issue of the day, the coronavirus pandemic, were abysmal.
Declining COVID-19 deaths and caseloads, and the resulting economic recovery, are boosting Biden right now. Relief that Trump has left the White House is probably helping him with some voters, too.
But Democrats can’t count on public gratitude in the November 2022 midterms. Economic growth did not keep the party in the White House from suffering big losses in 1994, 2006, 2014 or 2018. (Or in 2010, but it gets an asterisk because the economy was still in bad shape even as it grew.)
In some ways, Republicans look like better prospects for a comeback than they did in Barack Obama’s first year in office. Biden’s numbers are lower than Obama’s were, and his supporters are doing everything they can to broadcast the accurate message that they have a more aggressively progressive agenda than they did back then.
If Republicans start making gains, though, we might miss the early signs because we are so used to paying attention to the back-and-forth over the man in the White House. Republicans are more likely to drag Biden down by associating him with bad decisions than they are to discredit his decisions by besmirching him personally.
They can win, that is, but they may have to do it without a nickname.
Ramesh Ponnuru wrote this piece for Bloomberg.