Dispatches from the Potomac#40 | The Biden Administration, 15 Months On

This is a translation of an article originally written in February 2022 for publication in the April 2022 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Yoichi Mineo

Approval rating down to only 41%

There was a day my Pentagon-area neighborhood was filled with the sounds of drums and bells and shouts of joy. It was a little more than ten days after the November 3, 2020 election—the day Mr. Biden’s win was confirmed. The cheers I heard were people celebrating his transformation from mere candidate to president-elect. Since then, 15 months have passed. President Biden’s approval rating has fallen from 53% at the start of his administration to 41% in mid-February of this year (2022). This column explores the background of this decline through the lens of the Biden administration’s policies and their effects.

Looking back on the first year of the Biden administration, it is apparent that there are some policies that the president himself spearheaded and pursued to bring about fundamental change, and other policies that he left to government departments to implement and then tried to work on over time.

First, let’s examine Biden-led policies. These were domestic policies, starting with COVID-19 measures. The previous administration reversed much of the previous foreign and trade policy, which damaged trust and confidence in America overseas. To reclaim its leadership abroad, the United States needed to regenerate a sense of sustained stability that would remain unchanged through the election. To do so, the U.S. first had to focus on its domestic policy. President Biden surely had this in mind as he formulated the two policies that formed the axis of his domestic policy: reducing income inequality and improving the standing of minorities in society. First, as a measure to address income inequality, the U.S. provided on-the-ground income compensation and childcare subsidies for households hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, Biden presented measures for the mid- to long-term, such as returning the manufacturing industry (jobs and products) to the domestic market, creating jobs through infrastructure investment, and empowering labor unions. Policies to help minority groups included police reforms that aimed to address police violence toward African Americans and moves to improve protections for LGBTQ people. Under these policies, the Biden administration’s high-level positions were filled with a group diverse in gender and race.

Next are the policies the president left to government departments. These policies include foreign and trade policy, starting with China, as well as immigration policy. Many of these policies were inherited from the previous administration: Tariffs against China remained in place, and sanctions against Venezuela were never revisited. Though some immigration policies, such as the construction of a border wall and entry restrictions, were abolished, other measures were continued.

Are Biden’s own policies behind his dip in approval ratings?

What parts of these policies, then, have drawn the current low approval ratings? I see the cause in the policies orchestrated by President Biden himself.

Government funds provided with the aim of eliminating inequality have led to inflation. In fact, a total of $4 trillion in pandemic assistance was invested before the Biden administration took office. Support for businesses prevented bankruptcies and maintained the framework of the economy. Households increased their cash on hand through benefits and deferred loan and rent payments, and the pandemic-induced decline in consumption was short-lived. By the time the new administration took office, COVID-19 vaccinations had begun, and the economy was on track to recover. In the midst of all this, the government then provided an additional $2 trillion in fiscal stimulus. As restrictions on going out and about remained in place, this extra money went toward purchasing goods. Within three months of the start of the Biden administration, prices had risen to levels never experienced in recent years.

Police reform policy aimed at improving the situation for minorities included the introduction of a humanitarian response and moves to reduce police budgets. While this is not directly a Biden administration issue, these policies were promoted by the Democratic Party, which gained momentum through its control of the administration and Congress. These developments coincided with an increase in the number of crimes. Although the causal relationship between the two is not discernible, a shrinking police force could have easily been associated by the public with an increase in crime.

Will the Biden administration’s struggles continue? I believe there are scenarios where they do not. As benefits gradually run out, people’s shopping fever may cool down. In response to the increase in crime, there has been a move to increase police budgets, which could function to curb crime.

In this context, what are the risk factors for the Biden administration? Another major incident like the withdrawal from Afghanistan, for instance, or perhaps a policy toward China that has no visible decisive point. On top of this, the Russia-Ukraine issue, especially as it affects the general public, could well become a sore point for this administration.

This multitude of factors will influence the future of the Biden administration. Given these dynamics, the 2022 midterm elections will certainly be an event to keep an eye on.