Thursday, February 3, 2022

BTRTN: Bad News Comes in Threes, For Both Biden and Trump

Tom with the BTRTN January 2022 Month in Review.

If the Democrats are to have any chance at all of maintaining control of the Senate and House in the midterms – or even of achieving a respectable loss in either or both – then the month of January better have been rock bottom for Joe Biden.  Biden sustained perhaps the worst single week of his presidency, with a trio of terrible headlines that related to the economy (ever rising inflation), Congress (a flat out loss on voting rights) and COVID (a flat out loss in the Supreme Court).


And yet, even amidst the carnage, which drove his approval rating to a new low, there were some clear wins at the end of the month.  In fact, if Biden’s “reset,” whether he calls it that or not, is successful, one may point to late January as an inflection point for his administration.  But it is a long and obstacle-strewn path to that end.  For any success in the midterms, Biden and the Democrats not only have to win back the middle (comprised of uninterested independents and disaffected Democratic centrists) but also find a way to energize the base.  But Biden may just have the issues in hand to make both happen, with some proper management and some decent luck. 

The month started off in an unpromising manner and only got worse – fast.  Omicron surged like a firecracker to record levels as outside experts publicly called on Biden to revamp his COVID strategy.  The experts called him out for being reactive instead of proactive, and overly relying on a strategy of vaccination, with “get vaxxed” pleas largely falling not so much on “deaf ears” as “complete rejecters” of that path. There was a tepid unemployment report, with only 199,000 new jobs added.  And Russia continued its ominous build-up on the Ukraine border, once again testing Biden’s already-tarnished (by the messy Afghanistan exit and French submarine flap) foreign policy chops.


That grim threesome was bad enough, continuing the drumbeat of discontent on Biden’s management of the economy, COVID and foreign policy, clearly the defining areas of his presidency.


But then came another trio of gut punches in the second week of January that were, collectively, truly devastating.


First came the new inflation numbers, which have eclipsed the jobs report as the “must watch” economic variable, coming in at 7%, the highest rate in nearly 40 years.  Between that and the jobs report, Biden’s claims of a healthy economy sounded increasingly hollow.


Next came the demise of the voting rights push in the Senate.  The Democrats were once again confounded not only by Republicans (who refused to sign on to any reforms) but also (once again) by the two most recalcitrant members of their own caucus, the ever visible Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema.  The twist here was excruciating:  both Senators actually supported passage of the John Lewis Bill, but refused to create a voting-rights carve out to the Senate filibuster rule that would allow it to be passed with Democratic-only votes.  John Kerry was once excoriated for saying that he “actually voted for {an $87 billion military appropriations} bill until I voted was against it.”  Manchin and Sinema went Kerry one better, essentially simultaneously supporting the John Lewis Bill while voting against it. 


The bill, while not as expansive as the Dem-preferred Freedom to Vote Act, would have, essentially, restored the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that had been neutered by the Supreme Court.  Sinema killed that dream in a particularly embarrassing way, by giving a floor speech announcing her opposition to any type of filibuster reform while Biden was on the way over to Congress to lobby for it.  This reminded everyone of how Manchin had killed the Build Back Better hard infrastructure bill in December, blindsiding the White House in a FOX News interview just days after telling Biden privately he would continue negotiating.  With friends like these...


Chuck Schumer plowed ahead with his losing hand – actually two hands, losing first the attempt for cloture on the John Lewis bill (the GOP killing that), and then the carve-out bill (with Manchin and Sinema opposing).  Schumer seemed intent to prove how different a leader he is than Nancy Pelosi, who famously never puts a bill on that floor that she knows will fail; Schumer apparently was simply trying to embarrass Manchin and Sinema.  This was an extremely dubious strategy – Manchin, you may have noticed, is a very touchy fellow and Schumer needs both of them to pass almost any bill – and it also put centrist Democrats in a bind, forced to take a tough vote for the carve out for no good reason.  Schumer was successful at one thing – generating mega-headlines on the Dems failing on voting rights.


Finally, the Supreme Court once again thwarted Biden by scotching his plan to mandate vaccinations for companies with more than 100 employees, a crucial pillar in his COVID management plan.  The other main pillar – Biden finally delivering on his long past-due promise to ensure ample supplies of at-home testing kits – also came under fire for the clumsy pay-for mechanism, which require insurance coverage by carriers who had no system in place to process such claims.


The net effect of these three crushing blows was to reinforce the impression of a man increasingly out of touch on economic matters, foiled even on his narrowly-focused COVID plans, and unable to impose his legislative will not just on his beloved Senate, but on his own party.


What followed was hardly unexpected, more or less textbook recriminations for any difficult time.  There were brutal attacks from the progressive wing of the party on Biden’s too-little-too-late embrace of voting rights and filibuster reform; slews of articles offering well-meaning advice on how to turn around the Biden Administration; and the inevitable discussion of a Biden “reset” – a term that has been applied to every administration since Reagan, with the exception of Trump, who started out disastrously from the outset, never changed his mode of operation, and certainly never admitted to failures, a prerequisite for any reset.


Biden himself, in his first press conference in months, came reasonably close to doing just that.  He certainly gave a full-throated defense of his administration’s big wins, rightfully earned:  the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, vaccination distribution, the bi-partisan $1.2 trillion Infrastructure and Investment Act (the “hard” infrastructure bill), 6 million new jobs and unemployment below 4%, a bevy of new and diverse federal judges.  But he also admitted some mistakes, such as the delays in testing, and voiced some changes he would make going forward, including getting out more in America to get beyond the suffocating Beltway and inner-focused White House (that Bill Clinton once brilliantly characterized as the “crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system.”).


This press conference was hardly an unfettered success – seemingly desperate to prove Biden’s stamina, the press conference went on for nearly two hours, and he did seem to flag.  He committed a quintessential, old-style-Biden gaffe by implying that the Russians could engage in a kind of mini-war with Ukraine and get away without serious reprisals, which enraged Ukraine and resulted in an immediate walk back.  And some critiqued him for engaging too much defense and not enough reset.


But, seemingly no sooner than the press conference ended, the good news started coming, with near-Newtonian third law symmetry, in threes.


The first good news was the announcement by Justice Stephen Breyer that he would retire at the end of his term (or when his replacement was announced, if later).  Breyer was facing enormous public pressure to retire while the Democrats held control of the White House and the Senate.  Clearly, the Democrats were desperate to have Breyer avoid a repeat of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s legacy-tarnishing decision to stay beyond the Obama years, instead dying on Trump’s watch, and thus gallingly replaced by her ideological opposite, Amy Coney Barrett. 


Biden, who had presided over Breyer’s confirmation hearings as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1994, made a strategic decision to avoid personally pressuring Breyer to retire, and it paid off.  Biden then reiterated his campaign promise to name the first Black woman to the Court to replace Breyer.  Between the heavy media attention that will surely be placed on the new justice’s selection and confirmation, the Court’s likely adverse ruling (of some kind) on Roe v. Wade in June, and Biden’s strong record on judicial appointments, gives the Democrats a badly needed galvanizing and energizing issue for the midterms.


Next came the welcome economic news that GDP had grown by 6.9% in the fourth quarter on an annualized basis, and 5.7% for the entire year, the largest increase in 37 years.  This provided ample evidence supporting a key Biden talking point – that the economy was roaring, in part due to the American Rescue Plan, and in advance of the hard infrastructure bill infusion that would propel sustained growth in 2022 and beyond. 


And finally, days later, and just as the month ended, came the data that indicated that COVID cases in the US were finally on the decline, the Omicron variant’s trajectory more firecracker than wave, with the promise that the downturn would be as rapid in reverse as the December and early January surge.  This gave the Biden Administration – and America in general, at least the non-crazy part – evidence that some semblance of normal life could resume in the spring.  This is barring, of course, the absence of any new, dangerous variant.


Biden is hardly out of the woods. He still has enormous challenges, include the volatile Russia/Ukraine conflict, which could result in an “imminent” invasion.  (Biden, who seems to have more trouble with his friends than enemies, got into an argument with his Ukraine counterpart for using that word, which the Ukrainians felt was overstated and hurtful to the Ukraine economy).  He and Chuck Schumer need to find a way to get Joe Manchin talking again about some remnant of the soft infrastructure bill.  Certainly passing any version or aspect of the soft bill would be a badly needed 2022 talking point.  And he would greatly benefit from the luck of no new dangerous variant.


Biden has one other thing going for him – the travails of Donald Trump, and the Republican Party that is hopelessly lashed to him.  In the spirit of everything coming in three’s this month, Trump suffered three blows himself that put him in increasing legal peril.  The New York State Attorney General Letitia James filed papers in her civil suit that indicated significant fraudulent wrongdoing (in the misstatement of assets) by the Trump Organization.  The Fulton County prosecutor in Georgia received permission to convene a grand jury, which holds full subpoena power, to investigate Trump’s role in trying to overturn the valid Georgia presidential election count (most famously in a phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger that the latter recorded and released publicly).  And finally, the Supreme Court upheld, by an 8-1 margin that included all three of Trump’s appointees, the right of the January 6 Commission to obtain Trump White House records they had sought in connection with exploring the insurrection.


Trouble for Trump means trouble for the GOP, not a plus in the midterms.  Biden’s quest to hold Congress by winning the middle and securing the base will be helped as the GOP will be forced to either defend or deny Trump in districts and states that are mixed on Trump.  Trump overall is slowly losing support in the party – one poll finds that only 56% of the GOP want to see him nominated in 2024, down from previous levels.


The question for Biden is, of course, can he build on his modest late month turn of fortune?  The keys will be – continued economic growth, a decline in inflation, the normalization of COVID, managing the Russia/Ukraine conflict in an expert and successful manner, selling his successes, and building on them with a version of the soft bill and an error-free confirmation of a new SCOTUS judge.  It can happen – but it has to start now for the talking points to solidify in time for November.



Joe Biden’s approval rating dropped a point to 44% in January, after holding at 45% for four consecutive month, with a -8% “net.”  This is Biden’s low water mark for his presidency. 


Joe Biden’s positive ratings on his handling of five different issues – the economy, COVID, foreign policy, immigration and the catch-all “overall direction of the country” -- all declined in January, reflecting his sagging fortunes.



In January polling, on average the GOP continues to lead the Democrats on the generic ballot by a single point.  Using BTRTN’s proprietary models (which have been extremely accurate in midterm elections), if this lead was still in place on Election Day in 2022, the GOP would pick up about 20 seats and take over the House with some room to spare, though hardly in the magnitude of the losses experienced by Bill Clinton in his first midterms (-54 seats) or Barack Obama (-63), or even Donald Trump (-40). 



The “Bidenometer” jumped substantially from December to January, driven by the initial Q4 GDP report, which showed the economy growing at an annualized rate of 6.9%.  Substantial GDP growth more than offset a modest rise in gas prices and a drop in the Dow.  Consumer confidence remained high, and the unemployment rate fell below 4%.

As a reminder, this measure is designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

This exclusive BTRTN measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

The +68 means that, on average, the five measures are 68% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +68, the economy is clearly performing much better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, you can see from the chart below that under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to only +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward to +68 under Biden.


If you would like to be on the Born To Run The Numbers email list notifying you of each new post, please write us at

Notes on methodology:

BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.

For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.

The Bidenometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Biden Inaugural on January 20, 2021, on an average percentage change basis. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump left office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Leave a comment