At about the 1:45 mark of President Biden's marathon press conference last week, the pool camera panned from a questioner to the president, and in the sweep were Biden staffers in an adjacent hallway. In this fleeting image, more than one of them was fixated on their wristwatches. Later, Biden would do the same himself.
The glance at the wristwatch is dire political code, as Bush 41 found out at one of his 1992 reelection debates. It signals that your mind is somewhere else, or that you would rather be anywhere else. White House staffers seemed to be feeling the pressure as President Biden navigated the press for almost two hours.
Here was a 79-year-old president, who had just brushed off a question from a Newsmax reporter about his mental soundness, taking a torrent of questions from a harsh and hostile press.
"I think we've done remarkably well," the president said, as he recounted efforts to ramp up coronavirus tests and vaccine. "Nobody has ever organized a strategic operation to get as many shots in arms."
Gallup measured Biden's approval at an anemic 40% between Jan. 2 and 16, and for his first year, he averaged 49% approval. Republicans sense Biden blood in the water, citing the 7% inflation and the "disastrous" exit of Kabul last August.
A Pew Research Survey conducted Jan. 10-16 found President Biden and his Democrats face a daunting 10 months: 41% of U.S. adults approve of Biden's job performance, which is down slightly from September (44%) and substantially lower than last April (59%). Just 21% of the public is satisfied with the way things are going in the United States. Just 29% of Democrats express satisfaction with the state of the nation, down 18 points since March.
Democrats, when they're not in circular firing squad formation, will say that Joe Biden entered office 53 weeks ago with a full plate: A pandemic that is projected to kill 1 million Americans by year's end; the sudden omicron surge that swamped hospitals near and far; runaway inflation that finished off the presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter while wreaking havoc with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan; the tormented Afghan pullout; and, now, the specter of the biggest European military invasion since World War II as the Kremlin smacks its lips at Ukraine.
And for kickers, there is the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection that has many Americans wondering if democracy in this republic can even survive the next two "Armageddon" elections.
President Biden sees glasses half full: The $1.9 trillion pandemic American Rescue Plan that brought $13 billion in federal funds to Indiana; and the $1.7 trillion infrastructure deal that will improve tens of thousands of bridges and roads and bring high speed internet to the end of the road. The U.S. economy grew last year at the fastest pace since Ronald Reagan's presidency, expanding 5.7%.
In gauging Biden's tormented first year, it's worth examining where other television age presidents stood after a year in office. The four who were defeated for reelection three years later were all over the map, with President Jimmy Carter at 54%, George H.W. Bush at 80% and Donald Trump at 38%. In August 1975, President Ford stood at 52%.
The presidents who were reelected had mixed polling after their first year: Dwight Eisenhower at 71%, Richard Nixon at 63%, Bill Clinton at 55% and Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan both at 49%.
Reagan, Clinton and Obama were all considered roadkill after their first mid-term elections. Reagan's Republican Party lost 27 House seats and one in the Senate after he spent his first year forging historic tax cuts while staving off assassin's bullets and the inflationary oil shock recession. In 1994, Clinton saw the GOP gain 54 House seats (including three in Indiana) and eight in the Senate. In 2010, President Obama's Democrats lost 63 seats in the House and seven in the Senate.
As most of us know, mid-term funk doesn't mean exile from the White House. In 1984, President Reagan's "Morning in America" campaign forged an epic 49-state landslide win. In 1996, Clinton carried 31 states and D.C. for a 379-to-159 Electoral College win (with 49% of the popular vote) over Republican Bob Dole and independent Ross Perot after he declared "the era of big government is over." And in 2012, President Obama won 26 states and the District for 332 Electoral College votes in a 51.1-to-47.2% victory over Republican Mitt Romney.
A Politico/Morning Consult Poll released on Monday revealed some better news for Biden: He still holds slim leads over Donald Trump (45-44%), Sen. Ted Cruz (45-39%), Mike Pence (44-42%), and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (44-39%).
Wednesday's announcement by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer that he was stepping down is good news for Biden and Democrats. Biden has promised to nominate a black female justice, and this neutered administration, unable to get its Build Back Better megabill and voting rights bills passed, will now be energized by this SCOTUS nomination.
While America is as polarized as it's been at any time since the Civil War, there are a number of elements in play that would make declaring Biden and the Democrats toast premature at this point.