H I G H L I G H T S
• BIDEN IN A TROUGH
• INFLATION BLUES
• ABORTION UPSET
BIDEN IN A TROUGH
Despite the Ukraine war, low unemployment and a receding Covid pandemic, President Joe Biden is struggling in the polls. There is a widespread sense among Americans of an executive struggling with competency issues whether it is tackling inflation or responding to liberal concerns like gun control or protecting abortion rights. While Covid cases rise and fall, deaths and hospitalization numbers are steady and low, but US voters have “moved on” and are giving little credit to the administration.
Biden is reportedly “rattled” by his approval ratings, genuinely mystified how he scores below President Donald Trump’s at his lowest. On June 24th, fivethirtyeight.com’s weighted poll average gave Biden an approval rating of 39% and a disapproval rating of 55.5%, his worst ever numbers and a mirror opposite of Biden’s numbers at the start of the year. Recent polls with higher ratings for procedure and accuracy, such Ipsos, Trafalgar and Quinnipiac, give the president an approval rating in the 33-36% range.
An NBC News story described a president unhappy with his staff. “Biden is pressing aides for a more compelling message and a sharper strategy while bristling at how they’ve tried to stifle the plain-speaking persona that has long been one of his most potent assets.” Biden believes his team hasn’t “landed on a winning midterm message” and is “putting a lot of pressure on people to figure out what that is.” He is looking for ways to restore an image of “sure handed leadership.” A major Democratic donor is quoted elsewhere as saying that all he was hearing is “Why can’t you get anything done?” One reason Biden was able to defeat Donald Trump was the claim his long years in government would mean a restoration of administrative efficiency. “Biden is frustrated. If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said one person.
White House chief of staff Ron Klain may be the most prominent victim of the administration’s present malaise. Among the possible successors: Anita Dunn, a Biden confidante to whom the president has turned to in other moments of crisis; Steve Ricchetti, counsellor to the president; and Susan Rice, his domestic policy chief. Dunn or Rice would be the first women and first people of colour to be chosen for the position.
Biden is especially displeased at his staff’s tendency to undermine his own statements. “He makes a clear and succinct statement — only to have aides rush to explain that he actually meant something else.” When Biden, during a speech in Poland, said that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” he found his aides walking back his comments, saying US policy was unchanged. An angry Biden told his staff he had meant what he had said.
A flurry of articles have come out, even from liberals, questioning whether Biden deserves a second term or, improbably, should be replaced midterm. The Republicans want to impeach the president if they win both houses of Congress in November, a largely symbolic action as they will not have the numbers to complete the process. The progressive left of the Democrats have also become increasingly critical of the president, arguing he was not radical enough, unable to stem right-wing political victories in issues like abortion. But they have made it all that more difficult for him to govern and hold on to socially conservative minority groups like Hispanics and Arab voters. Centrists argue the opposite, saying Biden should have been more incremental in his approach and has been too much taken by a vision of pushing through a modern New Deal.
The White House has been wrong-footed repeatedly by the country’s number one problem: inflation. Prices began rising late last year, but the administration believed the effects were temporary, that inflation would peak in April and would cease to be a problem by summer. The unexpected 8.6% consumer price index increase in May, the highest such figure in 40 years, proved a turning point. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen publicly admitted the administration had gotten it wrong and the US Federal Reserve began raising interest rates to try and bring prices under control. Biden is now looking at the prospect of inflation continuing well into the third quarter, ensuring it will be a dominant issue in the November midterm elections. Polls show that prices trump mass shootings, Ukraine and abortion rights among voters as their greatest concern.
The White House has begun holding numerous meetings with US government agencies to find ways to bring down prices. Biden has privately blamed the legacy of President Trump while internally and publicly admitting inflation is the “bane of our existence”. With an eye on the electoral calendar, the White House made a new push to recast how it is fighting rising costs. The administration is seeking to ensure wage increases are higher than the inflation rate. At present the latter is three percentage points higher. A plan to provide cash rebates for petrol purchases fell apart when it was found that issuing so many debit cards was impossible given the present global shortage of chips.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Biden was defensive. “If it’s my fault, why is it the case in every other major industrial country in the world that inflation is higher? You ask yourself that? I’m not being a wise guy,” he responded to a question on the issue. Admitting Americans were really “down,” the president insisted “we’re in a stronger position than any nation in the world to overcome this inflation” and insisted the US would “own the second quarter of the 21st century.” He also said a recession was not “inevitable” — presumably in response to US Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell’s contradictory prediction.
In a widely expected decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that the extent of abortion rights were a matter left to state governments to decide. The decision, which sparked protests across the country, overturned the landmark 1972 court decision in the case of Roe vs Wade that had concluded abortion was a constitutional right. It also marks the end of a nearly half-century domestic consensus on abortion, one which the Republican Party was very much part of. The decision largely echoes a draft opinion by conservative Justice Samuel Alito jr that was leaked to the media in May. The judgment is the most striking evidence of the conservative shift in the Supreme Court following the appointment of judges during the Trump administration and the failure to do so during the Obama years. The decision was carried out with a 5-4 majority. “We hold that Roe and [1992’s Planned Parenthood vs.] Casey must be overruled,” said the ruling. “The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision, including the one on which the defenders of Roe and Caseynow chiefly rely — the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
President Biden announced plans to pass legislation restoring a nationwide right to abortion, belatedly seeking to fill in a gap on the issue of abortion: namely that it rested on two court decisions but was never followed up with legal codification. “This fall Roe is on the ballot,” Biden said, “The health and life of women in this nation are now at risk.” Republicans immediately promised to push for bans on all or late-term abortions in every state and anti-abortion legislation at the federal level if they do well in November’s midterm elections.
It is not clear how the issue will play out during the November midterm elections or that it will be able to push aside economic issues. Republicans have tended to downplay the issue in the past because of support for abortion rights among independent voters. Democrats say a number of swing votes, like New Hampshire, Arizona and Nevada, have large pro-abortion populations. Both sides claim the judgment will help mobilize their base. Fivethirtyeight.com noted that “many Americans will have to decide, perhaps for the first time in their lives, how they actually feel about legal abortion” after having taken it for granted for a half-century.
Polls show that a majority of Americans support early stage abortion. Late-term abortion is legal largely in the states of the Northeast and the Pacific coast. States like California said they would allow out-of-state women to use abortion facilities on their territory while large firms ranging from Meta to J.P. Morgan said they would pay for employees to go to protected states to have abortions. However, these are unlikely to be of much help to women from low-incomes or marginal groups who will be the primary victims of the ruling. The US recently experienced an increase of 7% in its abortion rate from 13.5 abortions per 1000 child-bearing aged females in 2017 to 14.4 per 1000. The country overall had 930,160 abortions in 2020.
A number of commentators have noted that the judgment reflects the weak statutory legs on which the original abortion policy stood – a single court ruling without any follow-up legislation. Liberal commentary has argued the ruling is the culmination of a well-funded and highly organised right-wing campaign by conservative Christians and other groups who over the past few decades were able to, first, overturn the Republican Party’s support for Roe vs Wade and then, second, ensure like-minded judges were appointed across the court system. The New York Times showed how, after 2010, Republicans were able to capture over 1,000 state legislature seats in a red wave that helped pave the way for the Supreme Court’s rightwing shift.
One unfortunate fallout is that modest gun control legislation passed by the lower house following a mass school shooting in the Texas town of Uvalde is unlikely to be taken up by the Senate.
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(The views expressed are personal)