The August Curse strikes again.
Back in late July, I chronicled just how brutal the month of August typically is for recent Presidents. That trend is particularly gruesome for the first August of a new term. Well, it’s safe to say the streak continues.
The fall of the Afghan government bedeviled Biden all throughout August, as the Taliban gained power while the U.S. military was forced to speedily evacuate thousands of Americans and Afghan allies. The scenes of Kabul’s citizens clinging to American jets was just the image the White House was desperate to avoid when the withdrawal began.
The news got even worse on the 26th when a suicide bomb attack at the gates of the Kabul airport killed 182, including 13 U.S. Marines.
For weeks, Biden was continually hammered by criticism from all sides. His steadfast determination to exit Afghanistan was fiercely condemned by an American foreign policy establishment that tends to favor intervention over disengagement.
Despite all of this, I would argue that the actual source of Biden’s pain is not the crisis in Afghanistan, but rather the rise in COVID cases due to the Delta Variant. Throughout July, the rolling 7-day average of cases grew from 12,000 to 78,000, causing the return of mask mandates and fears of economic reversal.
As a result, Biden’s approval rating was already declining during the first half of August. By the 15th, when Kabul fell, his FiveThirtyEight average was on the precipice of dropping below 50% for the first time.
All the while Biden’s numbers on COVID, which traditionally are among his strongest, have taken a similar dive. Managing the pandemic was a central tenet of Biden’s campaign, and the temporary return to normalcy in early summer his greatest accomplishment. So a setback in this area would obviously adversely affect his popularity.
Possible Paths for Recovery
Since it’s really the COVID surge dragging Biden down, another drastic drop in cases should lead to a corresponding rise in his approval numbers. Therefore, if the Delta surge has indeed passed its peak, the wind may be at Biden’s back sooner than we expected.
Likewise, there are several additional ways the President can bounce back this fall, such as a victory in the California gubernatorial recall. The contest is closer than expected, but if Gavin Newsom prevails it will provide Biden with a much-needed boost. In fact, a victory in the Golden State could aid Biden’s most substantial fall project, his dual infrastructure bills. A Newsom win could shore up shaky Democratic Congressional votes and keep Biden’s domestic agenda on track. Should the Presidents sign both bills this fall, he’ll likely earn a round of comeback stories in the press.
A wild-card in this whole situation is (once again) Donald Trump. The former President’s been mostly absent from cable news segments and Twitter trending topics since January. Yet that very well may change with the publication of Bob Woodward’s latest book on September 21st. A joint effort with The Washington Post’s Robert Costa, “Peril” will cover the Trump-Biden transition and the January 6th insurrection.
Woodward’s last Trump-centric work, “Rage”, became a breakthrough story during the heart of the 2020 presidential campaign. The taped conversations between the author and the former President revealed that Trump was far more frightened of COVID than he let on. Trump even admitted to downplaying the severity of the virus. While we don’t know what Woodward and Costa are currently sitting on, it could be powerful enough to knock Biden’s struggles out of the headlines and give the 46th President a much needed respite.
Finally, there are the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections in November. At the moment, former Governor and Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe holds a small lead in Virginia, while incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy is way ahead in N.J. Should Democrats sweep all three gubernatorial races this fall, it may just turn the narrative around for the Biden Administration as they enter a contentious midterm year.
At this low point for Biden, it’s worth remembering the political truism that the only constant is change. While that idea must have seemed so pessimistic during the glory days of spring, it now gives the White House much-needed hope as they sweat through the cruel dog days of August.