Jonathan Bernstein

How Well Is Joe Biden Actually Doing?

Inflation, and especially the price of gasoline, appears to be what’s driving President Joe Biden’s unpopularity right now. That’s how it goes for presidents: Policy outcomes, especially on the economy, are what matter to voters — whether or not the administration has much short-run influence over them. If we want to examine how well the president is actually doing, sometimes a better approach is to step back and look at areas more clearly within his control.

Here are five overlooked policy areas: two in which Biden’s administration is doing well, without much of anyone noticing; two in which it’s doing badly; and one mixed. Even on these issues, outcomes depend on more than just the administration’s actions. But perhaps they’ll give us a more accurate view of how good Biden is at presidenting.

Booster failure. Eric Topol reports: “Following one of the worst 1st booster shot uptakes in the world among developed countries, of more than 112 million Americans age 50+, only ~5 million have had a 2nd booster shot.” After the tremendous success of developing the original vaccines (during Donald Trump’s presidency), further progress appears to be stalled in finding updates that will stop the current variants. And if there’s any serious campaign to get folks boosted, I haven’t noticed it. I’ve heard or seen more PSAs for preventing forest fires and ensuring boat safety (good causes, to be sure) than for getting vaxxed and boosted in the last few months; there’s been hardly anything in the news media pushing the importance of getting additional shots. Even Biden, who used to mention the topic all the time, has moved on. The truth is, the messaging has been a flop from late last spring on. Not good.

Alliance success. We’re more than 100 days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and it’s rather remarkable how well the anti-Putin alliance has held together. No, US allies aren’t always doing exactly what Biden wants, but whatever winds up happening on the ground, it’s hard to find fault with the diplomatic effort. This is hardly automatic: Many previous crises, from Suez in 1956 to Libya in 2011, exposed all sorts of rifts. Credit is shared among all the nations involved, and perhaps also by both Vladimir Putin (for making the need for collaboration so obvious) and Volodymyr Zelenskiy (for being such a good rallying point). Still, the US is the leader of the alliance and has the greatest responsibility, and so far at least Biden and the State Department deserve plenty of credit for keeping things together.

Refugee failure. The US mostly stopped taking in refugees during Trump’s presidency. That was policy. Biden’s policy is basically to return to how things were, but so far the results haven’t matched the policy. It may be true that it’s easier to destroy a policy than to build one, but there’s not much sign of significant effort on this one. It’s a good reminder that policies aren’t self-enacting. If presidents really want to make things happen, they have to work at it.

Casualty success. It’s fairly well known that 13 US troops lost their lives during the withdrawal from Afghanistan last August. What’s perhaps less well known is that those were the only such deaths in Afghanistan during Biden’s presidency — and that there still haven’t been any troop deaths in Iraq since January 2021. During Trump’s presidency, the combined number of deaths (in Afghanistan and Iraq/Syria) came to 37 in 2017, 31 in 2018, 36 in 2019 and 22 in 2020. Biden took plenty of criticism over how the withdrawal was conducted, and some objected to leaving Afghanistan at all. But it’s more than a footnote that, after 20 years, the steady flow of US troop deaths has, at least for now, finally come to a stop.

Nominations update. Biden is still getting judges confirmed at a record rate, at least among recent presidents. But his lead is declining. Overall, the White House is still doing a good job on judges. Executive-branch nominations are more of a mixed bag. Of the 800 or so most important Senate-confirmable positions, Biden still hasn’t chosen anyone for 101. Nor has he made any effort to repair what is clearly a broken process, one that simply overwhelms presidency after presidency, even when (as with Biden) the administration takes the task seriously. On the plus side? Record demographic diversity continues, and while there are always going to be a handful of duds, overall both judicial and executive-branch choices have received good reviews, and hardly any nominations have blown up into noticeable scandal. So a mixed grade, still, on this one.