On August 11, just over three months ago, Joe Biden’s approval rating was above 50 percent in most public opinion polls, a milestone Donald Trump never managed to achieve during the entire four years of his presidency. On that day, President Biden secured another achievement that had eluded his predecessor: The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved his administration’s plan to invest in America’s crumbling infrastructure. The plan won the support of 19 Republican senators, a rare feat of bipartisan cooperation in today’s divided Washington.
After that victory, Biden looked stronger than ever. Back then, I made the argument that Israel’s new government should closely follow Biden’s political success and take his positive momentum into account when planning how to work with him on issues like Iran, China and the Palestinians.
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Three months have passed and after Tuesday night’s elections in New Jersey and Virginia, it’s clear that Biden’s presidency is in a very different place now. The fact that Republicans won a clean sweep in Virginia – a state Biden carried by 10 percentage points just a year ago – isn’t even the worst piece of news Democrats are waking up to on Wednesday morning. In New Jersey, a bluer state than Virginia, the incumbent Democratic governor is barely leading, and will probably end up surviving by a thread, even though his state supported Biden by a 16 percent margin last November.
These results reflect local issues and priorities, but they cannot be separated from national politics. When Trump was president, Democratic victories in ruby-red states like Alabama, Kentucky and Louisiana were early hints of his eventual collapse. In each of these states, there were local political circumstances that contributed to Republican losses – in one case, a Republican Senate candidate was accused of pedophilia – but the fact that Trump’s national approval rating was low during his entire presidency played just as large a role.
Biden’s approval rating is currently hovering around 42 percent – higher than Trump’s, but significantly lower than where it was just three months ago when he celebrated his infrastructure win. A group of left-wing lawmakers in Congress have since turned his big victory into a self-defeating stalemate, after refusing to approve the infrastructure plan in the House of Representatives until the culmination of complex negotiations over a separate bill to expand social programs and fight climate change. The result has been a president without any recent achievements or good news to campaign on – thus, allowing less favorable developments to lead the news and set the national agenda.
The change of power in Virginia and the much-closer-than-expected race in New Jersey are bad signs for Biden’s party ahead of next year’s midterm elections. This will also harm Biden’s most important international message: “America is back.” One of Biden’s key goals as president has been to restore global trust in America’s leadership by showing that the U.S. is moving on from the Trump episode and can be viewed again as a serious country dedicated to serious issues, whether that be climate change, the challenge posed by China or the threat coming from Iran.
This argument looked strong over the summer when Biden himself looked strong, and Trump was slowly fading from public memory. But that’s not the case anymore. If Biden’s approval rating stays low and “my way or the highway” spoilers within his party continue to hamper his agenda, Trump’s Republican Party will take over Congress next year.
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“America is back”?
Not if Trump is back. And a resounding Republican victory in 2022 will make him relevant again even if he doesn’t run for office, if only because of the fanatic loyalty most elected Republicans show toward him these days.
For countries like Israel, which rely on a strategic partnership with the U.S., a failure of Biden’s international agenda will be an important development. Israel was damaged by Trump’s unserious, politically driven foreign policy, one that brought Iran closer than ever to a nuclear bomb and hurt American credibility around the world. Israel benefits from a strong, serious, committed America that is respected and trusted by others – basically, what Biden promised to bring back after winning the presidency.
Such an America can still rise under Biden, but for that to happen Biden himself needs to rise back to where his approval rating stood three months ago, before his own party derailed his legislative achievements.