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Q&A: Professor William Howell Discusses President Biden's Performance Ahead of Halfway Point in Term

This story was originally published by Harris School of Public Policy.

By Ted Gregory

At the midpoint of President Joe Biden’s first term, the line tracking his job approval is a jagged, mostly downward path, from 56 percent in January of 2021 to a low of 37 percent in late July of last year. On Jan. 9 this year, his approval rating stood at 43.5 percent.

Biden’s predecessor — and 118 House Representatives — deny the election results that delivered Biden to the Oval Office. He presided over a calamitous exit from Afghanistan, yet rallied the Western World to support Ukraine’s fight against a Russian invasion. He pushed through three substantial pieces of legislation: the most comprehensive infrastructure package in 70 years; a $394 billion investment in healthcare, clean energy, the environment and taxpayer compliance; and $280 billion for scientific research and development in semiconductors and other tech.

He’s also been dogged by historically high inflation while presiding over unemployment levels that reached a 50-year low last year. He led the country through the pandemic but has done little to resolve the immigration crisis. We remain a deeply divided nation.

It's been a tumultuous two years for the former vice president who, when he became president at 78 years old, was the oldest person in U.S. history to take the job.

William Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at Harris who has written extensively on American political institutions, has been watching with particular interest as the saga unfolds. Director of the Center for Effective Government, Howell is the author, most recently, of Presidents, Populism and the Crisis of Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 2020). We sat down with Professor Howell at the midpoint in Biden’s term to look back at what a President Biden has meant for the United States and what remains to be seen.

What’s your general assessment of President Biden’s first two years in office?

Mixed. He delivered on some major legislative accomplishments; didn’t deliver on others. Democrats held majorities in both chambers in Congress, so he was well-positioned to advance all kinds of policy initiatives. These majorities, however, were small. And so, not surprisingly, he wasn’t able to deliver on a whole host of liberal initiatives.

President Biden signing legislation making Juneteenth a national holiday.

There are definite points of weakness, including his withdrawal from Afghanistan, which really tarnishes his legacy in foreign policy. To his considerable credit, after 20 years of military engagement in the country, Biden stepped forward, because he believed it was something he had to do. Withdrawing was going to be costly and risky no matter who did it. But Biden presented himself as someone with the competence and knowledge needed to attend to national interest abroad in ways that hadn’t been attended to under the Trump administration. Still, the tumult experienced in Afghanistan, coupled with the Taliban’s prompt takeover of the country, point toward not just a rocky withdrawal but also a basic failure in execution.

The other lament — and I find this one particularly troubling — is Biden’s unwillingness to marshal the considerable resources of the office of the presidency to protect our democracy. I’m thinking about institutional reform that will shore up our democracy against the machinations of a populist demagogue who may yet return. Biden gestured toward it, expressed a willingness to consider reforms to things like the Senate filibuster, but it wasn’t a hallmark of his first two years.

The threats to our democracy haven’t gone away. The divisions within our country and the level of disaffection toward government remain. While MAGA Trumpism suffered a setback in the 2022 midterms, populism itself remains prominent in our politics. I don’t think that’s likely to change anytime soon.

Populism represents a profound threat to the health of any democracy. We need some real leadership that will make enduring changes to strengthen our democracy. I hope we find it.

It does seem like Biden uses the bully pulpit to command attention in a very distinct way from his last two predecessors. How do you perceive his ability to use his voice as a single, unifying office holder?

We don’t see him very often at the mountaintop speaking coherently and forcefully about grand objectives. It’s often targeted. I don’t think anyone would say he’s a fantastic communicator in the way that Presidents Obama and Clinton were.

Take the Build Back Better initiative in 2021, for example. Rather than emphasizing its constituent elements, which were broadly popular, and talking about the substance of what he was trying to attend to, under Biden’s leadership the proposal was discussed largely in the context of its price tag. And over time, that price tag was just chipped away and chipped away. In the end, instead of being a tribute to the possibilities of liberal renewal, we know that its final price tag was slightly over a trillion dollars, a mere fraction of its original formulation.

President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during Build Back Better negotiations in 2021.

These middling outcomes partially reflect Biden’s mixed rhetorical ability to shape a national narrative and conversation about his priorities. They may also reflect what’s communicated privately—what he puts his shoulder behind—when it comes to meaningful change. When thinking about his lack of progress on democracy reform, I suspect both factors are at play.

What conclusions can you draw from the fact that the trajectory of President Biden’s approval rating through his first two years is very similar to that of his predecessor, Donald Trump?

Then-President Trump and now-President Biden debating during the 2020 presidential election.

We have more than half the country disapproving of both presidents – and these are two radically different presidents. To me, this speaks to the impossibility of the job: this is a job where the public expects presidents to do all manner of things and yet their ability to deliver is circumscribed. Success is always partial and contingent, as it depends on what goes on in Congress, the courts, and the larger bureaucracy, and it depends on happenstance—what crises break out, whether it’s a pandemic or a war in Ukraine or all kinds of disturbances that shape presidential administrations.

In an era of widespread polarization, one’s ability to lead is further denigrated. These basic facts, I suspect, contribute to the low approval ratings of these two very different presidents.

If President Biden’s term ended tomorrow, what do you think his legacy would be?

When we think about the eventual legacy of President Biden, one possibility is that his is something of an interregnum or interruption between the ascent of conservative populism; and that his low approval ratings and the divisions within our politics will soon benefit the Republican Party, which will subsequently pick up where Trump left off. Then we’ll see the Biden presidency as being something of a pause on much larger historical and political dynamics.

Another possibility is that Biden represents something of a corrective; that the spasm of the Trump presidency was overcome, and our democratic politics were restored; that while disagreements persist between conservatives and liberals, the conversations we’re having, at least, recover some measure of decency and principle.

A president’s legacy typically derives from the major policy accomplishments during his administration, and he has a few—a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, the infrastructure bill, the Build Back Better bill. He made some headway on background checks, on assault weapons, stabilizing the economy and importantly, largely pulling us out of the pandemic.

And a big one, I think, is stabilizing our politics a bit. Things were so volatile under the Trump administration. While our politics remain precarious and deep divisions exist within it, we’re not being shaken on a daily basis in the way that we decidedly were under the Trump presidency.

Biden’s presidential museum will have exhibits that point to wins for liberals. But in a broader sense, it’s a little too early to see how his place in history will be viewed. A lot depends on how the next two years play out and who’s elected in 2024.

How does Russia-Ukraine play into his legacy?

It’s very important. He played a crucial role in building up support for the Ukrainian government within Europe and in backing Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. If this leads to the eventual defeat of Russia and a possible regime change in Russia, Biden’s foreign policy legacy will be significantly improved. On the other hand, future historians will write a very different narrative about Biden if Ukraine is reduced to a rump state that is ultimately vanquished by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 2021.

But we shouldn’t focus too narrowly on Ukraine. There is reason for genuine concern, after all, that our investments in Ukraine are diverting our attention from or otherwise affecting our relationship with China. If the U.S. is unable to stabilize that relationship, our attention to the Russia-Ukraine war will be a major component in a continued critique of the Biden presidency.

What effect will the GOP majority in the House, a slim Democratic majority in the Senate and investigations that already have started to bubble up have on Biden’s ability to get done what he’d like to get done?

Democratic control of the Senate, which is remarkable in its break from historical trends, means a great deal in terms of the Biden administration’s ability to fill the judiciary with like-minded judges and justices.

Still, let us not forget that President Biden can still do things unilaterally in his administrative capacity. It also will be interesting to see if Biden can find a few Republicans to work with him to make piecemeal progress in a couple of areas—immigration reform and infrastructure, for example.

But, if you’re looking for the enactment of systemic reform to major problems—the need for comprehensive immigration reform, the need for attention to widespread inequality between the rich and the poor or climate change — I don’t think we can expect much progress to be made, at least not in the short term.

On top of all that, Biden’s ability to shape a national narrative is going to be mitigated by the Republican majority in the House, which we can expect to launch a whole host of made-for-TV investigations and hearings that are designed to shine a bright light on things that Biden would rather not talk about, or that directly undermine Biden's efforts to appeal to the broader public in the service of one policy objective or another.

The State of the Union address is coming up. If you’re a key advisor to Biden, what would you advise he emphasize in the speech?

President Biden wants to speak from a position of strength. He'll want to come forward and identify the remarkable accomplishments of his first two years in office. He’ll point toward the strength of our economy; the remarkable fight that Ukraine is putting up and that we stand with them; the recovery of our nation, both as a relates to the pandemic and the remarkably high inflation rates that we saw in the late summer and early fall. And then he’ll want to pivot toward possibility of bipartisanship; that is to say, ‘Look, Republicans, we can work together and here's what that might look like.’

He shouldn't be (and won't be) naive about his ability to advance a really ambitious liberal agenda or articulate a grand, new vision of the future. That just isn't in the cards. This is going to be about pragmatism and taking comfort in our existing accomplishments, while recommitting to undertaking the continued good work of a Biden administration.

When considering whether Biden will run for re-election, what factors come into play?

Biden on the campaign trail with Beto O'Rourke in 2020.

When thinking about whether to run, President Biden will think about its consequences for his ability to put these next two years to good use. And all else equal, announcing his intention not to run again is going to undermine his ability to effectively lead.

On the other hand, the later he waits, if he does ultimately back down, the less space he affords for other promising candidates to step in and make their case. So, we have this real tension that's going to inform his decision-making.

The big question about whether he runs again is, of course, the relevance of his age. He assumed the presidency as the oldest president ever, and to run at the age of 82 for a job that is as demanding as this one is—well, it gives me pause. Of course, he will be attended to by all kinds of advisors and the presidency doesn't reduce to the president alone. Still, the president is regularly expected to speak forcefully and publicly on behalf of national interests. Somebody who’s 82 and experiences the challenges of being that age in that position of power is justifiably cause for concern.

What happens if he declines to seek re-election?

The key question is, who would replace him? You've got to be able to name somebody. I have ideas about what a ticket might look like and I'm sure others do. But if you want to argue on behalf of him stepping down, you need to be able to point toward a ticket that can step in and pick up where he left off. And right now, the field of Democratic contenders isn't exactly sparkling.

What will you be paying particular attention to in the next two years of the Biden presidency?

Obviously, the big one is his decision about whether to run again. Also, we’ll want to see what narrative comes out of the Republican-majority House and the extent to which they’re able to stir up popular doubt about this president and reshape the narrative that Biden is trying to put forward.

Another thing to watch is Trump’s standing in the Republican Party. The last couple of months have not been good for his standing, but he remains the dominant figure within it.

Finally, I’ll look for whether Democrats and Republicans can find any points of agreement, whether they can accomplish anything meaningful at all. I’m not hopeful, but we’ll see.