Voters Think America Is Broken. Biden Needs to Meet Them Where They Are.

Seven months away from a rematch election pitting President Biden against former President Donald Trump, the incumbent is struggling. Mr. Biden suffers from persistently low approval ratings, he barely manages to tie Mr. Trump in national head-to-head polls and he lags behind the former president in most of the swing states where the election will be decided (despite some recent modestly encouraging movement in his direction).

The question is why.

When Mr. Biden’s defenders seek to answer the question, most of them tick off declining rates of inflation, historically low unemployment, strong economic growth, a list of legislative accomplishments and other evidence of a successful presidency. This suggests the problem is primarily a failure of communication — the thing flailing administrations always blame first, since it implies the path to improvement requires little more than doing a better of job of “getting the message out” about how great the president is doing.

It’s usually wiser to listen to what voters are saying — beyond the obvious concerns about the president’s age.

Recently, Gallup released the latest edition of its longstanding survey measuring “satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S.” Three out of four Americans (75 percent) claimed to be dissatisfied. The long-term trend tells a clear story: From the mid-1990s to late 2004, the level of satisfaction bounced around between 39 percent and 71 percent. But in the aftermath of the Bush administration’s failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and during a yearslong violent insurgency challenging American military occupation of the country, numbers began to slide. They would reach a low of 9 percent satisfaction in October 2008, in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

What followed was a very slow 12-year recovery of satisfaction across almost the entirety of the Obama and Trump administrations, with a post-2004 high of 45 percent reached in February 2020, on the eve of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. By January 2021, the level of satisfaction was back down to 11 percent, just two points off its historical low. Under Joe Biden, Americans briefly became somewhat more upbeat — but figures have sunk again from the mid-30s to the high teens and low 20s in recent months.

These findings mirror what other pollsters have found when they asked respondents about whether they think the country is on the right or wrong track, and about their trust in government and confidence in American institutions. The latter number has been slowly falling since the 1960s, but it, too, really began to collapse in 2004, eventually reaching the low 30s by 2007. In 2023, just 26 percent of Americans expressed confidence in our institutions.

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