The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden wants to brag, but most Americans think his first year was a disaster

President Biden participates in a coronavirus response meeting on Jan. 13. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

One of the most important lessons I learned as a presidential speechwriter is that when the president’s words do not match what the American people are seeing and experiencing, then Americans tune the president out.

In 2006, when the Iraq War was going poorly, President George W. Bush gave eloquent speeches explaining his strategy and his confidence in the final outcome of the struggle. But Americans were unmoved. It was only when he changed strategy by launching the 2007 surge, and the situation on the ground improved, that support grew for seeing the mission through.

It’s a lesson President Biden should take to heart as he prepares to deliver a speech Wednesday, the first anniversary of his inauguration, touting his administration’s successes. The problem for Biden is: Most Americans don’t believe his first year in office has been one of success; they think it has been a disaster.

This is the lived reality millions of Americans are facing after a year of Biden’s presidency: Inflation has reached a 40-year high, and we have a massive labor shortage, with more than 10 million unfilled jobs. Biden signed a partisan $1.9 trillion “covid relief” bill in March, yet when omicron arrived there weren’t enough coronavirus tests or therapeutics. Schools are closing again and emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts by adolescent girls have jumped 51 percent from 2019 to 2021. At least 12 major cities broke annual homicide records in 2021, we are experiencing the worst border crisis in U.S. history, and a surge of deadly fentanyl crossing the southern border has helped fuel an increase of 30 percent in overdose deaths in the past year. The disastrous retreat from Afghanistan projected weakness on the world stage and emboldened Russia to amass troops along its border with Ukraine — putting us on the knife’s edge of a land war in Europe. And while Biden promised in his inaugural address to put his “whole soul” into uniting the country, he just gave a speech comparing millions of Americans to segregationists and traitors.

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Little wonder that Biden’s approval rating has plummeted, from 55.5 percent when he first took office to just 42 percent today in the RealClearPolitics average. Polls show that majorities or pluralities of Americans think Biden is incompetent, not physically or mentally up to the job, and doing a worse job than expected. In one USA Today/Suffolk poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans said Biden should not run for a second term.

Yet unlike Bush, Biden is not changing strategy. Instead, he appears set to deliver yet another speech telling Americans, “I’m doing a great job, you just don’t realize it yet.” If he does, it will backfire.

Recall that Biden became a national laughingstock when he delivered a speech calling his Afghanistan debacle an “extraordinary success.” Then, earlier this month, he delivered another address bragging about the December jobs report. The same jobs numbers CNN correctly declared “a major disappointment,” Biden boasted that he had delivered “the sharpest one-year drop in unemployment in United States history” (failing to mention the unemployment rate only measures people who are actually looking for work). He crowed that he added “the most jobs in any calendar year by any president in history” (failing to note that this is because the pandemic had forced record numbers of Americans out of work). He bragged about “record wage gains” (while failing to add that those gains were decimated by record inflation.)

Americans who listened to Biden (which fewer and fewer are doing these days) thought to themselves: What planet is this guy living on? It’s costing me more to fill my gas tank, heat my home and buy food — and my grocery store’s empty shelves look like the old Soviet Union. I can’t get an appointment for a coronavirus test — and if I do get sick, they are rationing treatments. I can’t go return to work because my children are back in online school. I’m afraid to drive my car because my city has seen a surge in carjackings. But Biden thinks he’s doing one heck of a job?

It’s one thing to oversell a jobs report, or even a foreign policy blunder. Yet on Wednesday, Biden plans to present a revisionist history of the entire first year of his presidency. Sorry, but you can’t boast about your covid strategy when 55 percent disapprove of it. You can’t brag about your economic performance when 60 percent say it has been dismal. You can’t crow about your foreign policy when 55 percent believe you’re doing a terrible job as commander in chief. You can’t talk about how you’ve united the country, when a 49 percent plurality say you’ve done more to divide us. And you can’t say you’ve had a great first year in office when 63 percent say we’re on the wrong track.

Here’s what you can do, Mr. President: Cancel the speech.

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