Hiding in the basement isn't making Joe more popular

Joe Biden’s allies probably hoped that this weekend’s NBC News poll would show, as some other pollsters have, that the president’s popularity was improving along with the economy and consumer sentiment. Those hopes proved unfounded.

But then, why would the administration convince itself that the president’s relative standing with voters was an entropic phenomenon? It’s not just that Biden’s policies (from immigration to crime and violence to the economy broadly) are deeply unpopular. He is unpopular.

Biden’s job approval rating sank to a new low of just 37 percent. Moreover, Donald Trump maintained a 16-point advantage over Biden when voters were asked to evaluate which of these leaders was a “competent and effective” executive. When they were asked who has the “mental and physical health” to be president, their answers gave Trump a significant 23-point lead over the president.

Why wouldn’t voters draw those conclusions? The president has given them no reason to think otherwise. Indeed, Biden and his advisers seem to think that hiding the president from the public would disabuse voters of their impression that his physical condition is rapidly deteriorating. That’s a bizarre assumption, but it’s one the president’s handlers have spent the last year operationalizing.

In a New York Times dispatch from February 2023, reporters insisted that Biden would not wage the low-profile campaign he mounted in 2020 even as they forecast a repeat of the last presidential election cycle. The president, they noted, “intends to cut a lot of ribbons” around the country, promoting projects funded by a 2021 infrastructure bill. Departing from the pandemic-induced bunker mentality to which Biden’s 2020 campaign succumbed, the president would “travel frequently” and “deliver his message” to diverse audiences. But Biden’s team would still be selective in how they showcase the president to the public, and most of that showcasing would occur during the president’s peak performance hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Contrary to his aides’ claims, the president’s recent conduct suggests the oft-derided “basement campaign” has made a comeback. For the second year in a row, Biden will reportedly eschew an informal tradition of providing the network broadcasting the Super Bowl with a pre-game presidential interview. We must assume that is part of a deliberate communications strategy, given Biden’s reluctance to address the nation on his decision to commit the country to a series of dicey military ventures.

On January 11, the U.S. and its coalition partners embarked on a sustained campaign of retaliatory strikes on the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen. On Friday, Biden expanded that campaign with airstrikes on Iran-aligned Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria following an attack on a U.S. outpost that took three American lives. Given the scale of this mission and the risks associated with a kinetic effort to reimpose caution on Iran via its proxies, the nation deserved to hear the president make the case for this action. The consent of the governed is a prerequisite for any sustained military campaign. But Biden has not shown the voting public that level of respect, and voters are at liberty to resent it.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Biden’s handlers do not want the president overly exposed to the public. But that is an insane proposition. Biden does not have the luxury of picking and choosing the moments when he can subject himself to voters’ scrutiny. The basement campaign is an extravagance reserved for those who can divorce themselves from the day-to-day business of the executive branch. That obviously does not describe the sitting president.

Biden’s low profile seems to have only reinforced the impression in voters’ minds that he is unequal to the demands of the job he occupies. That is not their impression of his challenger. If the president intends to change this prevailing dynamic, he only has a few months left to do it. And that would begin with the wholesale abandonment of the basement campaign 2.0 — that is, if Biden’s physical state even allows for that possibility.

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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