Ben Roback: Biden looks like he’s lost control, and Democrats will pay the price

20 Apr

War abroad. Economic pain and legislative stagnation at home. The White House can’t control it all, but voters are punishing the president for issues within and beyond his control.

In times of crisis, political leaders look for signs of optimism. For Joe Biden’s White House, they are few and far between, and the warning signals are flashing ahead of midterms in November and the presidential election in 2024.

Take a whistlestop tour around the world. The global economy is reeling from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, sending wholesale energy prices and the cost of raw materials skyward. The World Bank has slashed its forecast for global growth in 2022 from 4.1 per cent to 3.2 per cent.

Supply chains that were already choking are now on the verge of collapse. Covid refuses to disappear, and its ongoing presence is exacerbated by flawed and failing “zero covid” strategies.

Voters might be minded to give the president a pass for global problems beyond his control. After all, the White House has only a limited capacity to shape a labyrinth of geopolitical affairs, just as Donald Trump could not have been fairly or squarely blamed for the outbreak of novel virus in a provincial Chinese market.

Should we therefore take the latest presidential approval ratings with a pinch of salt?

Four polls in the last week ranged from the low-30s to the low-40s for presidential approval rating. In the polls by Quinnipiac University, Hart and CBS News, Biden was lowest or tied for lowest presidential approval rating. He is now closely tracking Trump, who routinely broke new ground in presidential unpopularity.

Giving the President the benefit of the doubt would make sense if he was underperforming abroad but overperforming at home. Neither are true.

In the United States, inflation has hit a four-decade high, and the Federal Reserve is considering an aggressive pullback of the kind of support it injected into the economy during the pandemic. Goldman Sachs put the odds of a US recession at 15 per cent in the next 12 months.

Energy and petrol prices are both soaring, and opposition Republicans have waged an effective campaign that lays the blame at Biden’s door. Gun violence, to which we have all become depressingly accustomed, continues to rage without any sign of political intervention.

That is not to say Biden’s presidency has been a failure. But big promises made in the general election on societal changes like police reform and expanding voting rights have stalled furthering the notion that this is an administration that’s lost its way.

The legislative agenda gives deeper cause for concern

Democrats may try to convince themselves that legislative progress is being stalled in Washington and political oxygen sucked up by complex foreign affairs. Voters cn be forgiving of legislative inaction on the kind of societal changes on which Biden campaigned based on the deep-rooted unpopularity of a deeply divided Congress and largely inept political class in Washington.

“Not getting things done”, in this view, is a curse on all political houses.

But if the legislative agenda is a tide, then it is increasingly turning against Democrats. On three key policy areas, Republicans are dictating the direction of travel and setting the terms of the November midterms and 2024 presidential election.

Abortion access is under genuine threat from Republican state lawmakers and governors who are hell bent on using their local power to limit freedom of choice. It sets the tone for a nationwide discussion in the coming weeks on Roe v Wade when the United States Supreme Court rules on a controversial Mississippi law that directly challenges the landmark 1972 legislation.

On education, Republicans are successfully driving policy at the state level. Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governorship by putting education policy and parental rights at the heart of his campaign.

Governor Ron DeSantis is trying to do the same in Florida through the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill. The Sunshine State has just rejected 41 per cent of new maths textbooks citing critical race theory as a principal reason.

Democrats continue to struggle to coalesce around a response and it looks increasingly like they are ceding the education and parental rights debate entirely.

On immigration, voters are weary of a porous southern border. Nine Democrats have now publicly expressed opposition to the White House’s current policy position to end the use of Title 42 authority to deny asylum claims at the US-Mexico border by next month.

Immigration is a ripe campaign topic for Republicans when Democrats are in opposition. The controversy surrounding Title 42 deeply endangers Democratic incumbents in states that could decide the Senate majority in November.

Warning lights flashing for November 2022 and 2024

Voters might give Biden a pass for the global context shaping domestic politics and economics, but there is no political excuse for failure on kitchen table issues like crime and the economy.

Safety on the streets and enough money for petrol in the tank and food in the shopping basket are simple to understand, not intricate foreign wars.  Fail to get on top of both and the Democrats will not only face wipe out in the November midterms, but they can also kiss the White House goodbye in 2024.

The President is posting record lows for his tenure and closely tracking Trump, his historically unpopular predecessor. Popularity is down amongst Hispanics, African Americans and young voters.

Covid is on the decline in the United States and the White House has an historic Supreme Court nomination on which to campaign. But if the current pattern continues, punishment for the Democrats in November 2022 and 2024 looks increasingly inevitable

Ben Roback: The Vice President wants the President’s job – and he knows it

17 Nov

Ben Roback is Vice President of Public Affairs at Sard Verbinnen & Co.

How do you become an “excellent” Vice President? It’s something of a contradiction in terms. Can Dominic Raab reasonably aspire to be a “brilliant” Deputy Prime Minister? The sporting world is rarely full of “outstanding” assistant managers. When the role is being a solid back up to the chief, competence is critical, and aspiration is frowned upon.

In the ruthless world of Washington politics, no Vice President can or really should ever be more successful than their boss. If the pervading narrative in Washington were that the Harris vice presidency was a roaring success that left the Biden presidency trailing behind, the White House would move to reduce Harris’ profile and responsibilities.

Closer to home, it came as no coincidence that a Downing Street source reported that the Prime Minster was considering reshuffling the Chancellor to the Department of Health at around the time when Rishi Sunak’s popularity ratings vastly outscored Boris Johnson’s.

Kamala Harris’ problems are twofold in what has otherwise been a very good week for the Democrats in Washington. (Joe Biden signed into law a $1 trillion infrastructure bill at the White House in a rare bipartisan event. Thirteen Republicans voted for the legislation, and two even went to the White House on Monday to witness Biden signing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law.)

First, if competence is key in the role of number two, Harris risks losing a grip on that vital trait. It would not be unfair to describe the Harris vice-presidency so far as underwhelming.

Much was expected of her, but the President has moved to limit her role and remit. She is said to have played a consistent back-room role in cajoling Democrats to support the White House’s vast infrastructure spending bill, but that proved to be a torturous process that entrenched deep dividing lines on the left.

The Vice President’s next big challenge is selling the benefits of the legislation to the American people. After yesterday’s signing ceremony on the South Lawn, the White House and Cabinet members are expected to begin a months-long road show to showcase the benefits.

We can expect senior Democrats in front of derelict buildings and decaying bridges across the length and breadth of the country. That presents an opportunity for Harris to insert herself into frontline domestic politics in a way that she has arguably failed to do thus far.

On the one hand, that means Air Force Two remaining on standby at all times, and a gruelling schedule away from the heartbeat of American politics in Washington. On the other hand, it will see Harris touring the towns, cities, counties and states that will shape the 2024 presidential election.

It is on that basis that we uncover Harris’ second problem. The Vice President wants the President’s job, and he knows it. She was brought onto the presidential ticket to provide balance in order to win the election and advance the kind of diversity of background, gender and thought that the Democratic Party base aspires to see. But there appears to have been little consideration about the role she would play once the election was won.

Harris appears increasingly exasperated, amidst a perception that she is being sidelined from front-foot political and policy issues, while being handed poisoned chalices that can never be resolved – such as the migrant crisis on the southern border where the humanitarian situation is getting even more dire.

Biden is expected to delay any public decision on his decision to run for re-election in 2024 for as long as possible. He is already American’s oldest president at 78 on inauguration day; the median age at inauguration is 55. It is crass to suggest Harris is a ‘heartbeat away’ from the presidency but, if he does run again, Biden will be asking voters to re-elect him to serve until he is 86.

An incumbent Vice President should be the natural successor when their party’s presidential nomination is open. As such, Harris remains the most logical successor to Biden. It is clear that shehas aspirations for the one office higher than her own, but a poor track record as Vice President on key issues like the southern border risks pouring cold water on those presidential ambitions. Nonetheless, for a playbook in how to turn the vice presidency, Harris needn’t look far: she can just ask Biden.