U.S. President Joe Biden reacts as he speaks about Hurricane Henri and the evacuation of Afghanistan in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. August 22, 2021.
Joshua Roberts | Reuters
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is having a very bad month.
His poll numbers have slipped to their lowest point of his presidency, and much of it has to do with Covid and Afghanistan.
The frenzied U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan appears to have shaken voters’ faith in his promise to bring competence and a steady hand back to the White House.
Americans across the political spectrum are horrified by images of desperate mobs trying to get to the Kabul airport and flee the country.
Biden insists that an element of chaos was inevitable with any U.S. withdrawal. But after 20 years of war and nation-building, the speed with which Afghanistan fell to the Taliban raises painful questions about whether American soldiers died in vain.
On the homefront, the highly contagious delta variant of Covid-19 has overwhelmed hospital intensive care units. Fueled by stubbornly high rates of unvaccinated adults in some of the poorest states in the country, the latest Covid crisis has split the country in two.
On one side are vaccinated people living with Covid as though it were a seasonal flu. On the other, unvaccinated people, who are succumbing to Covid at rates that are reminiscent of the pandemic’s early days.
As America struggles to confront twin crises, polls show voters souring on Biden.
The president began the month with an average job approval rating of 51.5%, down from 54% at the start of May.
By Tuesday, Biden’s average approval rating had fallen to 47%, the lowest so far in his presidency.
Polls from Suffolk University, NBC News, Morning Consult, Harris and CBS News all show the same thing: While a majority of Americans agree with Biden’s original decision to pull the last U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, they overwhelmingly disapprove of how the withdrawal is being handled.
Overall, voters approve of Biden’s handling of Covid more than they do his handling of Afghanistan. But his Covid approvals have taken a hit this summer.
Still, pollsters caution that Americans tend to judge their presidents based on domestic policy, not foreign policy.
So the drop in Biden’s overall approval ratings likely reflects the somewhat lower approval for his Covid handling, more than it does the sharp drop in voters who approve of how the Afghanistan withdrawal is being handled.
A recent NBC News poll found that approval of Biden’s Covid handling fell from 69% in April to 53% in August, a 13-point drop.
Meanwhile, just 25% of voters said they approved of Biden’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan.
“The promise of April has led to the peril of August,” Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt, who conducted the NBC News poll, told the network.
“It is the domestic storm, Covid’s delta wave, that is causing more difficulties at this stage here at home and for President Biden.”
Horwitt’s Republican counterpart on the NBC poll, Bill McInturff, was more succinct. “The best way to understand this poll is to forget Afghanistan,” he said.
In Washington, Biden’s plummeting approval ratings are causing headaches for his fellow Democrats.
With a tiny seven-seat majority in the House and historical trends already favoring Republicans to win a majority next year, Democrats have been counting on Biden’s broad public approval to boost their chances of hanging on to their slim majority.
In July, the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way released a study highlighting what they said was Democrats’ economic trust gap with voters. The study recommended that vulnerable Democrats “run as Biden Democrats on the economy in 2022.”
The report noted: “A majority approve of President Biden on the economy (50–48%), while voters disapprove of Democrats in Congress by a 41–55% margin.”
But while Biden may still poll better than congressional Democrats on overall handling of the economy, here, too, his approval has slipped below 50%.
According to the NBC News poll, public approval for Biden’s handling of the economy has fallen five points since April, from 52% then to 47% now.
And as House Democrats know all too well, 47% is not enough to win a majority.
Despite the bleak outlook for Biden and Democrats now, the president has several opportunities in the coming months to turn things around.
If America exits Afghanistan without incurring any U.S. casualties during the withdrawal, voters are likely to forget about the panic at the Kabul airport.
Even better for Biden will be if House and Senate Democrats can pass his two massive domestic spending bills, an infrastructure bill and an expansion of the social safety net.
If all this comes together, Biden’s August nadir could seem like a blip.