Joe Biden’s mishandling of Afghanistan has tanked his poll numbers. Is it permanent?
By Matthew Gagnon
George W. Bush used to be a pretty popular guy. People forget that, as he left office with an approval rating of 34 percent and a disapproval of 61 percent, according to Gallup. His approval rating had sunk in the middle of his second term and remained low for some time before he left office, which has helped him go down in history with the dreaded moniker of an “unpopular president.”
But that same Gallup survey showed that President Bush was fairly popular for much of his time in office. In their first survey of his presidency in February of 2001, Bush had the approval of 57 percent of Americans. It dipped a bit — down to 52 percent — by that summer as his “honeymoon period” ended, but as his administration passed a major bipartisan education law in June and seemed to be succeeding in accomplishing its agenda, his numbers rose again, back up to 57 percent by August.
Then the Sept. 11 attacks happened, and his approval rating spiked as high as a rather unbelievably 90 percent. He stayed mostly in the 70s and 80s through most of 2002, never dropping any lower than 61 percent.
Obviously things eventually changed from there, but Bush ended 2003 with a 63 percent approval rating and by the month of his reelection in 2004 after a brutal negative campaign, his approval stood at 53 percent, and his disapproval 44 percent.
The deteriorating situation in Iraq and some high-profile legislative failures on Social Security reform and immigration reform began to wear away at Bush’s durable popularity and left him as a divisive figure, but even then he still stood at 46 percent approval in early September 2005.
But then something happened. An event occurred that shifted America’s opinion of its president, and convinced millions of people that his administration was failing to do its job. Bush had encountered an inflection point, before which Americans had one opinion of him, and after which that opinion shifted.
That inflection point was Hurricane Katrina.
There is no question that the hurricane was a massive event that would have given any administration fits to deal with, but Bush’s handling of the disaster looked incompetent. His support and praise of FEMA director Michael Brown — “you’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie!” — made him appear out of touch and tone deaf.
More importantly, though, Bush’s brand had previously been that of a competent manager, the MBA in the White House running a smooth, efficient operation that knew what it was doing and worked like a professional, well-oiled machine. Afterward, that brand had been destroyed, and even Americans that still supported Bush felt like the administration was a disorganized mess of incompetence.
This is when you see Bush’s popularity crater. In mid-October 2005, his approval dropped to 39 percent. By May 2006 it was down to 31 percent, and it dropped as low as 29 percent in July 2007 and 28 percent a year later.
Once Bush’s fundamental brand was destroyed, the house of cards his popularity was built on fell apart and he never recovered.
Joe Biden has, through the first seven months of his administration, had a fairly stable, moderately popular profile of his own. He has hovered in the low 50 percent range for most of his time in office, only recently occasionally dropping into the high 40s in a few polls.
But then the situation in Afghanistan happened.
Biden’s brand was of that of the stable, steady hand of competent leadership. His pitch to us was that he was an experienced, mature adult who you could trust to manage domestic and foreign affairs.
And yet, like Bush’s handling of Katrina, Biden’s handling of the pullout from Afghanistan has looked similarly disastrous, directly undercutting the notion of competent, experienced leadership on the world stage.
And already we are seeing signs that President Biden’s support is eroding. In a USA Today/Suffolk University poll conducted this week, Biden’s approval sat at a dreadful 41 percent, and 55 percent disapproval. Rasmussen likewise, showed his approval dropping to 44 percent.
Does this mean Biden is in for a precipitous fall like Bush was? Not necessarily. Every president encounters peaks and valleys of approval. Biden’s ability to bounce back is going to be entirely dependent on whether he can regain his footing and convince Americans of what he is currently telling them: that this may have been messy, but it was always going to be messy, and it was necessary.
If the situation continues to get worse — think of Americans killed or taken hostage, or renewed fighting with the Taliban — this may be the moment Biden’s brand was blown up for good.
Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.