Jonathan Bernstein

Is Biden’s White House Really ‘Adrift’?

In a predictable sequence, just after President Joe Biden’s approval rating fell below where Donald Trump’s had been four years ago, we get a story from NBC News about problems in a White House described as “adrift.” Political scientist Brendan Nyhan nails it:

Versions of this story are written about literally every modern president facing a bad economy or other challenges -- they're frustrated with in-fighting and want a more effective message. (Hint: Lower inflation and less COVID would fix most of these problems.)

The Biden version of this story stands out, in fact, by how little disarray the reporters can conjure up. The biggest identified failure is that the White House and the Food and Drug Administration were slow to act — and to alert the president — about the baby-formula shortage. That seems an accurate assessment, and one can argue that the administration moved too slowly on a few other issues as well. Still, that doesn’t really add up to NBC’s accusation of “management breakdowns.” Nor is it a management breakdown when Biden shoots off his mouth and his staff walks it back. That’s just how things normally work in the presidency.

That White House officials are apparently frustrated by all the problems they’ve had to face is also no surprise — all White Houses feel unfairly put upon — even though the only reasonable response each time is: What did they expect? Sure, there’s been a lot to deal with. There’s always a lot. Trump had a pandemic on his watch, after all. Barack Obama had a sluggish recovery from a deep recession that began well before he took office. George W. Bush had that recession, one other and terrorist attacks. Bill Clinton … well, he mostly had peace and prosperity, but he also inherited sluggish growth that took time to improve. George H.W. Bush — in only one term — had the end of the Cold War, the demise of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War, a recession and more. Biden is certainly facing challenges, but compared to Ronald Reagan’s first term? Or Harry Truman’s?

What is legitimately frustrating is the weak relationship between presidential actions and the outcomes that most affect presidential popularity. Yes, it’s possible that Biden and congressional Democrats erred in making the 2021 recovery bill too large. On the other hand, Europe is dealing with inflation as well, and it’s easy to focus on what went wrong and ignore the strong jobs market and economic growth that the recovery bill helped to sustain. It’s quite plausible that different policy choices would have produced somewhat less inflation — but with a sluggish jobs market and slower growth. The point here isn’t to defend the policy. The point is only that for better or worse, presidents are judged on outcomes, not policies.

Polling isn’t helpful in this regard. Earlier this year, people told pollsters that they were willing to pay more for gas to constrain Russia. But when prices went up, it turned out that those people were lousy at predicting their own reactions, since they did in fact get upset and blame Biden. Polling finds, too, that people want Biden to pay more attention to inflation. That’s clearly bunk. What they actually want are results. Sure, it can’t hurt for Biden to stage events that demonstrate his commitment to solving the problem. But if really wanting a certain outcome was all it took, then we would have had nothing but strong growth for centuries. And if voters cared about effort and not results, almost every president would be wildly popular.

The truth is, if this White House thinks it’s functioning well, then the best choice is still to avoid panic and stay the course. Even if that can’t guarantee the outcomes that voters care about.