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It has been almost 11 months since Joe Biden took the oath of office and replaced Donald Trump as President of the United States. The early success of the coronavirus vaccination process and a rapid economic recovery from the sharp decline in GDP experienced in 2020 due to the government-imposed lockdowns, made most political commentators think the new President was on his away to an easy political year. So why has Biden’s popularity plummeted over the last few months and why did his party loose the gubernatorial election in Virginia, a state governed by the Democrats for the last 12 years and on which Biden beat Trump by more than 10 percentage points?

Figure 1: Decline of Biden’s approval rating and increase of his disapproval ranting over the last few months.
Picture: 538

Anus horribilis?

Contrary to what was initially predicted, Joe Biden’s first year in office has been marked by a number of serious setbacks. Over the rest of the article, I will focus on 3 that are believed to be causing the increase in discontent with the new President and his party.

Vaccination hesitancy

On April 30th, the President’s promise to deliver 100 million vaccines on his first 100 days was met two times over and around 46% of the population had already received at least one dose of the vaccine, a percentage twice as high as that of the EU and six times that of the rest of the world. Daily new Covid cases and deaths were on a decline and a return to normal was on the horizon.

The early success of the vaccination process was, however, hiding the effect of the large vaccination hesitance in the country. According to a poll conducted for The Economist, around 30% of the population does not want to be vaccinated or is unsure, the highest rate in the developed world. Once those willing to get the jab received their doses, the US vaccination rates plummeted, creating the perfect ground for the new Delta Variant to hit the US in a dramatic way. Daily covid cases and deaths increased tenfold and new poorly communicated restrictions had to be imposed to halt the spread of the virus. For someone who had ran on a platform of bringing the coronavirus pandemic “under control”, this return to restrictions and rise in deaths was seen as failure by the President, and has resulted on sharp decline of his approval on handling covid from 63% to 49% in just six months.   

Figure 2: Anti-vacination protest.
Picture: Daily Beast

Evacuation of Afghanistan

When Biden became President the war in Afghanistan was already the longest conflict in US history. After 2448 US servicemen deaths, a cost of $2.3 trillion (around $7000 per American), and 19 years of conflict, the Taliban maintained a significant and growing presence in Afghanistan. The war had become very unpopular among voters, and both 2020 candidates ran on ending the war. In February of 2020, Trump stroke a deal with the Taliban to leave Afghanistan, and on April the 14th, despite a strong push from the Pentagon to remain until the Afghan security forces could assert themselves against the Taliban, Biden delivered on the deal and announced the US would pull all troops out of the country by September 11th.

As the American troops began to be pulled out, the Taliban went on the offensive and made rapid gains on the country. As the world saw the Afghan struggling to push back on the Taliban offensive, Biden defended his decision by saying it was “highly unlikely” the Taliban would ever take control, but a little over a month later the Afghan government fled the country and the Taliban were entering Kabul virtually unopposed.

Once the government fell, the NATO forces organized a massive airlift of nationals, embassy staff, and Afghan citizens who worked with coalition forces. The chaos and panic that ensued at the Hamid Karzai international airport following weeks was broadcasted all around the globe, with heartbreaking pictures of desperate people hanging on to wheels of planes and falling to their deaths as they took off.

Although these awful images were already a stain on Biden’s Afghan policy of redrawing all troops, the worse episode came on August 26th when a suicide bomber and gunmen from ISIS targeted a gate at the airport where thousands of people were crowing trying to find a way out of the country. A total of 182 people lost their lives, 13 of them being US servicemen. Despite the chaos of the evacuation, by August 30th the US last military airplane took off with the last remaining troops, officially ending the 19th year military intervention. Over the 17 days that followed the fall of Kabul, the US and its allies evacuated over 120 thousand people out of the country. This success was not, however, enough to offset the horrifying scenes broadcasted from the airport over the next few days, with a poll by ABC News showing that 60% of Americans disapproved Biden’s handling of Afghanistan.  

Figure 3: Biden receives bodies of us servicemen killed in the airport terrorist attack at Dover Airbase.
Picture: The Times

Gridlock in Biden’s agenda

On the 2020 elections, Biden’s Democratic party not only won the Presidency but also won a majority in the Senate and maintained their majority in the lower house, the House of Representatives. It is although important to note that the majority held in the House of Representatives, also known as just the House, was cut down to just 9 seats, the lowest majority held by any party since 2000. In the Senate, the Democrats are tied with the Republicans with 50 seats each, but Vice President Kamala Harris can also vote in the Senate which gives the party control of this chamber as well. Although a bill needs 60 votes to be passed by the Senate, the Democrats can use a special rule to avoid this called “Reconciliation” and approve certain legislations with just 51 votes.

These two razor thin majorities in congress have made it very hard for the President to move forward with his legislative agenda without having every single senator and all but 4 congressmen on board. The long and complicated negations have severely delayed two important bills, a $1.2 trillion bill that aims at modernizing the country’s infrastructure and a social spending $3.5 trillion social spending bill combines major initiatives on the economy, education, social welfare, climate change and foreign policy. These two bills are highly popular among voters, with a Quinnipiac poll giving them a 60% approval, however, the party infighting between moderate and progressive Democrats has delayed the passage of this bills for months.

This deadlock in congress and failure to deliver on electoral promises has created an image of an incompetent party and President, and according to a Emerson College poll, a plurality of voters now want Republicans to regain control of both the Senate and the House in next year’s midterm elections. If this were to happen, Biden would have little to no chance of moving forward with any of his legislative agenda as Republicans would try to block any Democratic bills.

Troubling times

There are several other reasons for Biden’s fall in popularity among the American public: the slower than expected economic recovery, the fears of inflation or maybe it is just normal for Presidents to see their approval rates decrease as their “honeymoon” period wears off. Whatever the reason is, it seems to be a big problem for Democrats even though the 2024 elections are still three years away. One should note, however, that even despite the fall in support, Biden’s most likely opponent, Trump, is even more unpopular than the current President. This was seen in Virginia, a state Biden won easily in 2020, where the Republican Glenn Youngkin won the state’s gubernatorial election, but he did so by distancing himself from Trump and focusing on local issues. Also, Afghanistan will most likely not be on people’s minds by then, and the current gridlock in congress seems to be coming to an end, as congress has finally passed the infrastructure bill and is moving closer to find a consensus on the 3.5 trillion social spending one. The signs are not good for Democrats coming into next year’s midterm elections, and current projections show they will lose the majority they currently hold in both chambers of congress, but a lot can still happen in one year, and especially in three.

Sources: The Atlantic, Our World in Data, NPR, 538, Daily Beast, New York Times.

João Sande e Castro

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