The One Thing Biden Can’t Afford to Lose

by Nathan L. Gonzales September 17, 2021 · 11:48 AM EDT

The next presidential election is more than three years away, and even the midterms won’t happen for another 14 months. Yet President Joe Biden could be on the brink of losing something costly: the benefit of the doubt. 

While I’m on the record as skeptical that Afghanistan will be the defining issue in the fall of 2022, there are pieces of the story that could do lasting damage to Biden’s standing. Considering that midterm elections typically serve as referenda on the president, a politically damaged Biden is likely to negatively affect Democratic candidates next year.

“If there’s American citizens left, we’re going to stay until we get them all out,” Biden told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos on Aug. 18. That sound bite will be replayed by Republicans for the undetermined future, given that the last American soldier left Afghanistan two weeks after Biden made that declaration and some Americans were left behind.

Beyond the impact on Americans and allies remaining in Afghanistan and the diplomatic consequences, there’s potential political fallout as well. 

Remember, Biden is close to the lowest point of his presidency. As of Thursday, FiveThirtyEight’s average had his job rating at 45.6 percent approve/48.8 percent disapprove, and the RealClearPolitics average was 45.3 percent approve/49.8 percent disapprove. 

It will be weeks and months before we know whether the current downward trend in Biden’s job approval is the beginning of a continuous slide or a valley with a peak on the other side. Improving his job rating will depend on his actions (coupled with the actions of the Democratic-controlled Congress), as well as his reaction to unforeseen events. And voters are likely to judge him based on the outcomes of his decision, as well as his ability to deliver on promises. 

Who’s Honest Anyway?
Compared to Donald Trump, Biden started his presidency as a more trustworthy figure in the eyes of voters.

According to the 2016 exit polls, 33 percent of voters said Trump was honest and trustworthy, while 64 percent said he was not. (That was similar to 36 percent who said Hillary Clinton was honest and trustworthy, and 61 percent who said she was not.)

In comparison, 50 percent of 2020 voters said Biden was honest and trustworthy and 49 percent said he was not, according to the AP Votecast survey. That was better than Trump who was at minus 21 points on the question (39 percent said he was honest and trustworthy, while 60 percent said he was not). 

There’s also evidence, up until the spring at least, that Biden was gaining some credibility with voters. When asked how well “honest” described Biden, 48 percent of adults said very well or somewhat well in Pew’s American Trends Panel survey in June 2020. That figure ticked up to 53 percent last fall, about a month before the election, and finally up again to 57 percent this past March. Clearly a lot has happened in the subsequent months, including the exit from Afghanistan and a surge in coronavirus cases, that could affect how voters rate Biden’s honesty today.

Credibility Hits
Trust can be hard to quantify, but the way voters perceive it affected at least the three most recent presidents. 

As the coronavirus was starting to surge the first time in spring of 2020, a majority of Americans didn’t trust Trump to give them accurate information or trust what he said about it. That manifested itself negatively not only with people’s health and well-being, but also when Trump was trying to reopen the economy. Despite the president’s encouragement, many business owners weren’t convinced it was worth the risk to the lives of their employees, their customers and themselves. And a sputtering economy contributed to Trump’s reelection loss.

President Barack Obama’s credibility took a hit after he defended his 2010 health insurance overhaul by saying, ad nauseam, “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.” That actually was not the case as the law was implemented and, in 2013, Politifact declared Obama’s line the lie of the year

Democrats better hope Biden doesn’t follow the same path as President George W. Bush. His job approval rating hit the stratosphere after the Sept. 11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq, then came down slowly, and held steady near 50 percent for more than a year before Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. But after Bush told the Federal Emergency Management Agency director leading a widely panned government response that he was “doing a heckuva job,” the president’s approval rating started a gradual decline from the mid- to upper 40s. He was in the mid- to upper 20s, according to Gallup, by the end of his second term when the nation was on the cusp of the large financial crisis that began in 2008. 

After Katrina, it felt as though a large swath of voters simply tuned Bush out. No news conference or sit-down interview was going to help him after that. And Bush’s poor standing contributed to two great Democratic election cycles, in 2006 and 2008. Biden and the Democrats can’t let the same thing happen if they want to have any chance of holding the majorities in Congress.