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Trump 47 Biden 41 (Harvard-Harris 29 March)

Do I have your attention?

This horse-race poll result is not new: Trump has been leading Biden for some weeks. Biden last won, by a nose, in a couple of polls in late January and early February. And it’s well known that Biden has been mired in the low 40s in the ratings of approval of the job he’s doing. That’s territory that used to be the monopoly of Donald Trump, but Trump has had to move over. Trump’s favorability rating is now marginally higher than Biden’s.

Now, you can say that Biden has time to recover before the presidential election of 2024, and he does. But in today’s highly polarized political environment, the midterm vote next November will inevitably also be a referendum on his leadership. And so far, he’s failing the test.

The thing is, Biden has been stuck in negative territory since late last summer, in spite of an impressive economic recovery and the current significant decline in Covid. Surging inflation has rained on the good economic news, and the experience in mid-2021 of having Biden proclaim victory over Covid just before the last surge damaged his credibility. And of course the precipitate and poorly organized withdrawal from Afghanistan undermined what would have been a very popular move by projecting an image of incompetence. These unforced errors, failure to anticipate and address inflation, failure to anticipate a new Covid surge, and failure to implement an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, seem to have baked in a perception of inadequacy, even though Biden has actually done a number of good and popular things, such as the massive infrastructure law that passed last year, even as he had to work with paper-thin majorities in both houses of Congress.

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His response to the war in Ukraine just illustrates the point. He stated at the start that he would not put US troops into Ukraine, but would otherwise do all he could to provide military , humanitarian and economic support for that country, while marshaling NATO to impose punishing sanctions on Russia. That’s pretty much exactly what Americans are saying they want him to do, but he’s not gained anything in the polls for it, except for many people saying he’s not tough enough on Putin. Exactly how could he be tougher on Putin without provoking a nuclear World War III? Nobody can really say. But Biden gets no credit for the skillful diplomatic work.

Other than this persistent weakness at the top, Democrats are not in bad shape for the midterms. In spite of widespread predictions of a Republican landslide, the generic polls for which party you’d vote for in the congressional race consistently show a very tight race, suggesting that the number of House seats switching won’t be high, and could go either way.

Similarly, Senate and governor races are not showing a landslide either way. Incumbents look like they’ll hold on, mostly. The races in Georgia (incumbent Democratic Senator, incumbent Republican Governor) are perhaps the most likely to flip. Pennsylvania looks to be the epicenter of the election this year: both a Senate seat (Republican-held) and the Governorship (Democratic-held) are open. The Democrats have a consensus candidate in the incumbent Attorney General, while there are multiple candidates for both parties for Senate, and for the Republican gubernatorial race, going into the primary next month. Given the iron grip of the Far Right on the Republican Party, their nominees for both offices will likely be too far right to easily win a statewide race, while the Democrats are more likely to nominate moderate liberals who will be better-positioned to win in November.

So the midterms, even with Joe Biden as a drag on the ticket, look to be close, and could easily end up with a small net gain for the Dems.

But Joe Biden, if his polls haven’t improved substantially by November, will need to decide if, at the age of 80, he will continue to seek reelection. I hope he decides not to do it. And if he does decide to go for it, he should be challenged by other candidates with relatively clean slates.

The Democrats cannot succeed in 2024 under Joe Biden’s leadership.