You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Joe Biden Is Not in Free Fall

The president has faced some serious headwinds, but rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.

President Joe Biden enthusiastically gesticulates to a crowd.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

One of the major differences between liberals and conservatives is that liberals are much more inclined toward public teeth-gnashing. It’s just something in our DNA: Maybe it’s an admirable honesty, or perhaps a less than admirable tendency toward panic; really, it’s probably some combination of the two.

Donald Trump was underwater in job approval numbers for basically his entire presidency. He managed to hit 50–50 for roughly the first week on the job; after that, the American people had seen all they needed to see, and he was mostly in the red by double digits from that point on. But did pro-Trump, right-wing pundits bewail this, writing about what a crisis it was? Not that I saw.

Today, though, Joe Biden is mildly underwater, and all I read on the op-ed pages and see on cable news (and not Fox; MSNBC) is panic. Please, people: This is ridiculous. There are two main reasons why we’re in this period of storm and stress, and it’s just astonishing to me that people forget about these two things.

First, assuming these two bills pass in some form, the narrative about the Biden administration will change instantly. Reporters and columnists will get back to writing “Biden agenda: biggest since FDR” stories and it will be as if this alleged “free fall” period never even happened. Cable news is entirely about the zeitgeist of the moment, and it lives for alarmism—the louder the sirens, the better. If you get asked onto a cable news segment today and you’re told it’s about Biden’s approval numbers, you know going in that you’re supposed to say that he’s in deep trouble.

But he’s not. He’s at 45–49. That’s not good, but it isn’t horrible. The last 10 polls—tossing out two Rasmussen entries because they’re always cooked against Democrats—have him averaging 46.6 percent. At this point in 2017, Trump was at 38–55. But he governed, and his supporters behaved, as if he were at 55–38. And that is exactly how Biden and his supporters should act, too.

All this isn’t to say Biden and his team, and his party, haven’t made mistakes. They have. I suspect that most of his slip in the polls has to do with the still-simmering Covid-19 pandemic and inflation, two matters over which he has only some control. The former almost completely isn’t his fault. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made some mistakes, but basically, it’s the fault of criminals like Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis, and the idiots who won’t get vaxxed. Inflation is Covid-related, too, and Biden took a step last week to unclog the supply chains so that supply can meet demand.

But a couple things are his fault. He owns Afghanistan—though I’m not sure anyone cares about the fraught early days of the withdrawal anymore; unless it thunders back into the news in some awful way, it may not end up being on anyone’s mind in the months to come. And, of course, the intraparty budget fight has nipped at the president’s heels. Here, Biden has looked too passive. It’s time to crack some heads (two in particular). Democrats have to get this done soon. The party looks foolish.

If, somehow, the bills that form the core of the Biden agenda completely fall apart, then, yes, maybe it’s time to panic. This outcome still remains unlikely. Once Democrats come to terms, the storyline will flip that day. It won’t go from panic to ticker-tape parade. And Biden won’t immediately vault to 55 in the polls. That’s just not in the cards these days. But he’ll gain some points back and be at something like 48–46, which is manageable.

The second reason panic is unwarranted has to do with 2024. Assuming Biden remains healthy and seeks reelection (I know, there’s a lot of assuming going on in this column, but they’re reasonable assumptions), he has 48 percent of the vote locked in. People who are panicking now about Biden’s approval are thinking of old models of presidential politics. Jimmy Carter, say, had bad approval numbers as the Iranian hostage crisis dragged on, and as we know he went on to get creamed by Ronald Reagan, winning just four states.

We don’t live in that country anymore. We live in a 48–48 country. There are certain states—a lot of them—that a Democrat simply can’t lose. This is especially true if Trump is the Republican nominee, as I expect he will be. Biden could fail at everything and be at 43 percent in the polls and still possibly win (Trump was at 45–53 last Election Day and nearly won).

If recent Electoral College patterns hold, I see Biden winning 20 states (and the District of Columbia, and that single district in Nebraska) worth 233 electoral votes, and Trump winning 25 states worth 234 electoral votes. The battle will be over the remaining five states and their 71 electoral votes: Pennsylvania (19), Georgia (16), Michigan (15), Arizona (11), and Wisconsin (10).

There are, in theory, three possible outcomes: a comfortable Trump win; a comfortable Biden win; and a razor-thin outcome either way (let’s set aside for the moment whatever Trump and the Republicans may do after a loss to steal it, which is a different topic). A comfortable Trump win is not in the cards. He’s lost the popular vote twice, and there’s little reason to think he could win it next time unless the country is in a depression or fighting World War III.

That leaves two possibilities. A comfortable Biden win is certainly possible. If Democrats pass these bills and voters begin to see the positive effects of infrastructure work and pre-K and so on, and if inflation is checked by then and the economy is growing at a decent GDP rate, Biden could win comfortably.

You may roll your eyes at the if’s if you wish, but there are other if’s that would help Biden—notably, if Trump is indicted. That won’t discourage his fans, who’ll just see a fake-news, deep-state indictment as one more reason to adore him. But it will discourage that small but crucial number of swing votes who said what the hell and took a flyer on him in 2016.

The other, and alas more likely, outcome is a race that comes down to 50,000 or so votes in those five states. We’ll have plenty of time to talk about that, but my point for the purposes of this column is to say this: The mathematical relationship between Biden’s approval number in October 2021 and the electoral outcome in November 2024 is zero.

There’s a lot to be worried about. Like, you know, fascism. Worry about that. Let’s not worry about transitory polls. Joe Biden is not in free fall.