It’s the Pandemic, Stupid

What new polls reveal about American priorities

COVID-19 and the Delta variant have hurt Joe Biden in the polls.
Eric Baradat / AFP / Getty; Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Losing a war undermines the public’s trust in any leader. But the setback causing the most damage to Joe Biden’s political standing likely isn’t the U.S. military defeat in Afghanistan—it’s the frustrating home-front struggle against the resurgent coronavirus pandemic.

Support for Biden’s performance as president has tumbled in the most recent batch of polling. For the first time since he took office, a higher percentage of people disapprove of the job he’s doing than approve, according to the RealClearPolitics average. (Biden remains just a hair above water in the FiveThirtyEight trend line.) Yesterday, a USA Today/Suffolk University poll found his approval rating at 41 percent—a dismal showing more commonly associated with Biden’s unpopular predecessor, Donald Trump, who never won the support of a majority of voters.

The easy explanation for these numbers is that the public is blaming Biden for the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. Voters seem to be siding with critics who say the president botched the withdrawal of U.S. forces and endangered both American citizens and Afghan allies who now are desperate to escape Kabul. Surely, the chaos overseas has played a part in Biden’s diminished standing. How could it not? Scenes of heartbreak and despair have dominated headlines and newscasts for the past 10 days, accompanied by grim comparisons to Vietnam and reminders that Biden had flatly ruled out such a nightmare scenario barely a month earlier. Just one-quarter of respondents approved of Biden’s handling of Afghanistan in an NBC News poll released on Sunday.

A closer look at these surveys, however, suggests that the larger—and, for Biden, potentially more worrisome—factor in his declining support remains the pandemic. The NBC poll asked respondents what they considered the most important issue facing the country; the coronavirus was the top choice, while Afghanistan didn’t even make the list. The public also still supports Biden’s decision to withdraw American forces, recent surveys show. Simon Jaworski, the president of the U.S. office of Leger, which regularly conducts polls for The Atlantic, told me that Biden’s approval rating in its surveys had fallen significantly in the month before the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan.

One data point has jumped out to pollsters more than any other. From April to August, the percentage of people in the NBC poll who said that the worst of the pandemic was behind us plummeted by 24 points (from 61 percent to 37 percent). “These days, we just don’t see shifts like that in a lot of political measurements,” Jeff Horwitt, the Democratic half of the bipartisan polling team that ran the survey, told me. Leger measured a similar sentiment and saw an even more dramatic dip, from 60 percent in early July to just 32 percent about five weeks later.

For many Americans, the surging Delta variant has snuffed out the optimism they had in the spring. Consumer confidence has dropped sharply during the summer, as has the public’s overall assessment of the economy. People are naturally taking out their frustration on the president. Approval of Biden’s handling of both the pandemic and the economy has declined in recent polls. “This is really much more about COVID and people’s feelings about how this has been handled—the trajectory of the virus,” Horwitt said.

Voters elected Biden in no small part to get control of the pandemic, and to provide steady leadership that could steer the country to a return to normalcy. But the rise of Delta despite a mass-vaccination campaign has shown the limits of his ability to control the virus. Much of the resurgence isn’t Biden’s fault; millions of Americans, egged on by the skepticism and disinformation of conservative elites, have refused the inoculations, and COVID-19 is spreading fastest in places where vaccination rates are lowest. But Delta is everywhere now, and cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to rise nationwide. Even in highly vaccinated places, the virus’s spread is wreaking havoc with schools and travel, stunting return-to-office plans, and prompting an intense debate over the question of vaccine mandates.

Experts are worried about another seasonal spike at the end of the year, and the CDC is readying another blitz to provide booster shots to the entire country. The worst might be behind us, but the pandemic isn’t over. For Democrats, that reality is politically ominous. On Monday, Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, told NPR that the U.S. might not get the virus under control until the fall of 2022, and only then if the “overwhelming” majority of Americans are vaccinated. He later clarified that statement, saying he meant to say the spring. “My bad,” Fauci told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. But the damage was done.

Next spring is certainly better than next fall, but either scenario is bad for Biden. Democrats are already favored to lose their slim congressional majorities in the midterm elections, thanks to the GOP’s advantage in gerrymandering and a historical disadvantage for the party in power. Their best hope is to be able to campaign on having defeated the virus and restored a booming, more equitable economy. The latest projections put that plan in serious doubt. Biden’s political gamble on Afghanistan, as my colleague Peter Nicholas reported, is that it was better to rip the bandage off now, to end a war that the public had soured on, even if doing so meant short-term chaos. The White House believes that the public’s attention span is fleeting, and that the images of carnage in Kabul will soon give way to other headlines.

Biden could easily win that bet: Americans might well forget about Afghanistan by the time they go to the polls next year. But for Democrats, it might not matter. The pandemic and the economy are top of mind for voters, and come the midterms, they could be casting their ballots in the midst of another long stalemate much closer to home.