The media assessments of President Biden’s State of the Union Address on Tuesday night have been overwhelmingly positive (I refer to actual news media and journalists, leaving out the likes of Fox and NewsMax that I do not consider to be legitimate news venues.) More than a few have called his address the “best State of the Union ever!” The speech highlighted Biden’s accomplishments, which contrary to public opinion, have been significant, especially given the opposition from Republicans in Congress. And yet … despite his accomplishments, Biden’s approval rating remains low. Robert Reich asks (and partly answers) the question: What gives?
Why the discrepancy between what Biden has achieved and what Americans think about him?
8 February 2023
As I mentioned last night, I thought Biden’s second State of the Union address was superb. It was one of the best State of the Union speeches I’ve witnessed — and I’ve witnessed many.
Biden’s record so far has also been impressive — even though for the first two years of his presidency, the Democrats held a razor-thin congressional majority, and the Republican Party has become more traitorous and treacherous than at any time in modern American history.
Yet despite Biden’s impressive record, only 42 percent of Americans approve of his presidency. That’s barely above the 41 percent at his last State of the Union address, and a lower approval rating at this point in his presidency than any president in 75 years of polling except for Trump and Reagan (who at this point was hobbled by a deep recession).
Despite Biden’s significant achievements, fully 62 percent think he has accomplished “not very much” or “little or nothing” during his presidency. Majorities believe he has made no progress on his signature initiatives — from improving the country’s infrastructure to making electric vehicles more affordable to creating jobs.
And even though jobs are being created at an almost unprecedented rate, unemployment is at its lowest since 1969, and inflation is dropping, Americans are deeply pessimistic about the economy.
So what gives? Why the discrepancy between what Biden is achieving and what Americans think?
Let me add a few thoughts of my own.
First, let me stress my belief that Joe Biden has been an exceptionally good president. The only reason I bring up his low ratings is to try to understand why, despite his achievements, most of the public doesn’t seem to share my view.
Opinion polls are notoriously inaccurate, as we’ve all witnessed in the last major elections. Yet Biden’s consistently low ratings across almost all polls — and the bizarre fact that he’s polling no better than Trump did at this point in Trump’s presidency — can’t be blamed simply on inadequate polling methods.
Many of you blame the media — both Fox News and its radical right imitators, as well as the mainstream — for minimizing Biden’s achievements and exaggerating his inadequacies.
I largely agree. Fox News and other rightwing outlets continue to poison America. As to the mainstream media, as to anyone who reads this letter knows, I’ve been deeply concerned about its “two-sides” ism and absurd attempts to draw moral equivalence between Republicans and Democrats.
That said, only a small fraction of the public is exposed to Fox News or to the New York Times or the Washington Post. The media alone can’t account for Biden’s low ratings.
I want to suggest to you three other culprits that to my mind are playing a larger role.
First is the legacy of Trump, along with the deeply cynical and angry divide he has spawned in America. Even if George Washington were president right now, some 40 percent of the public would likely despise him.
Second is social media, which has become a cauldron of ever more extremist rage. Under Elon Musk, for example, Twitter has become less of a “public square” than a hell-hole of hate. No national leader is immune to such relentless battering.
Third and perhaps most importantly is the continuing crises that most Americans find themselves in. Some two-thirds of us are living paycheck to paycheck. Almost no one has job security. Adjusted for inflation, the median wage continues to drop. COVID is receding but “long” COVID is taking a devastating toll. Fentanyl and related drug poisonings continue to rise.
Joe Biden and his administration have made important progress. Their legislative victories are important. The American Rescue Act helped millions survive the pandemic. But most Americans are still hurting. Hopefully, by the fall of 2024, the hurt won’t be nearly as bad.