November 03, 2022 10:00 PM
“Let’s be real clear about one important thing: This election is not a referendum,” Biden said at a recent Democratic National Committee reception in Florida. “It’s a choice. It’s a choice between two vastly different visions for America.”
Biden’s job approval rating less than a week before the election stood at 42.6% in the RealClearPolitics polling average, with 54.7% disapproving. Reuters had his approval at 40% and Quinnipiac at just 37%.
No matter how much they professed to be proud of Biden’s record, the White House and its closest allies knew they were unlikely to win a referendum. They might, however, be able to win a binary choice in which the other options were the Republicans and their most controversial policies or personalities.
This is not new. Biden sought to make the last presidential election a referendum on former President Donald Trump, whose average 2020 approval rating was 44.4%, according to RealClearPolitics. Trump retaliated by trying to make it a choice between himself and the far Left of the Democratic Party. Trump scored some points, with the Electoral College once again coming down to narrow margins in three states and Republicans gaining House seats. But Biden won.
But a president’s low job approval ratings don’t occur in a vacuum. Despite anger over the 2020 election, Biden came into office with a reservoir of goodwill from voters who wanted to move on from both the pandemic and his polarizing predecessor. It took less than nine months for that to dissipate, and while the withdrawal from Afghanistan accelerated that trend, inflation running at a 41-year high solidified it.
Inflation has hit families hard. Grocery bills and gas prices are up. The stock market and 401(k)s are down. The Federal Reserve has begun an aggressive campaign of interest rate hikes to counteract stubborn inflation, which will also pinch borrowers and consumers. The economy grew in the third quarter after contracting the previous two, but it is not clear how long this will last, and public economic attitudes soured while GDP growth was healthier and unemployment was low.
Just 38.5% approve of Biden’s handling of the economy, according to the RealClearPolitics average. Politico and Quinnipiac have that number as low as 35%. An October New York Times/Siena College poll found that the economy was the top concern at 44%. Those voters were breaking more than 2-1 for Republicans.
Late in the cycle, Biden tried to turn the economy and inflation back around on Republicans. He said they would repeal the Inflation Reduction Act, as the Democrats’ second reconciliation bill came to be called. He argued that they would cut Social Security and Medicare while clawing back lower prescription drug benefits, making things more expensive. He contended that “mega MAGA trickle-down” Republicans would “crash the economy” through debt default and government shutdowns.
For most of this election year, however, Biden has tried to change the subject from the economy. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion became a major rallying cry for Democrats. At a minimum, the issue seemed likely to limit the GOP’s reach into bluer areas, especially as congressional Republicans contemplated restricting abortion at the federal level.
Biden has also argued that the election transcends issues, because “MAGA Republicans” will threaten democracy and behave as they did during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. “We must vote knowing what’s at stake and not just the policy of the moment,” Biden said in a pre-election prime-time address in Washington, D.C.
Connected to this, Biden has raised the specter of political violence. He drew a straight line from Jan. 6 to the attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). “This intimidation, this violence against Democrats, Republicans, and nonpartisan officials just doing their job are the consequences of lies told for power and profit,” he said. “Lies of conspiracy and malice. Lies are repeated over and over to generate a cycle of anger, hate, vitriol, and even violence. At this moment, we have to confront those lies with the truth.”
Above all, Biden has attempted to reframe this election along the same lines as the one he won: a race against Trump and Republicans like him. He calls unnamed GOP officials “ultra” and “mega” MAGA. He described Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) as “Donald Trump incarnate.” Trump’s legal problems and refusal to cede the stage have made it easier for Biden to keep talking about a vanquished rival.
“Don’t compare me to the almighty,” Biden says frequently. “Compare me to the alternative.” The results will show whether that comparison is the answer to Biden’s prayers.