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Joe Biden might be able to survive age, unpopularity

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
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Poor President Joe Biden cannot get a break. Over the past two weeks, he has had major successes. Yet his approval ratings remain largely unchanged. Photo by Ron Sachs/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/039aa89b4a5f586c2460b809a5e477c2/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Poor President Joe Biden cannot get a break. Over the past two weeks, he has had major successes. Yet his approval ratings remain largely unchanged. Photo by Ron Sachs/UPI | License Photo

Despite some recent successes, President Joe Biden's popularity ratings remain at all-time lows for any White House. Can Biden survive and reverse this condition as past presidents have? Or is recovery impossible for a soon to be 80-year-old president?

Jack Kennedy survived the Bay of Pigs fiasco. While LBJ did not recover from Vietnam and Richard Nixon from Watergate, no president would have. Ronald Reagan recovered from an assassination attempt and the Iran-Contra scandal. Bill Clinton survived impeachment and George W. Bush the ill-conceived Iraq invasion.

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Barack Obama made some profound errors with his ill-advised "pivot" to Asia; setting "red lines" that were ignored with Syria; and a Russian "reset" that failed. None were politically fatal.

The future of Donald Trump is an unknown. Twice impeached and not convicted, his legal problems and personality will determine that future. But if he runs, Trump may be the only candidate Democrats can beat.

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That said, poor Biden cannot get a break. Over the past two weeks, Biden has had major successes. The CHIPS and Science Act was signed. The Inflation Reduction Act was passed by Congress. July's job creation of some 530,000 was astounding,

Abroad, Ayman al-Zawahiri was brought to justice, assassinated in Kabul, Afghanistan, depriving al-Qaida of its leader. NATO is in the process of adding Finland and Sweden. And Ukraine is still imposing huge casualties on Russia's invading force. The vote in Kansas supporting reproductive rights was a strong indication that this issue will help Democrats in the November elections. All would bring some degree of euphoria to any administration.

Yet Biden's approval ratings remain largely unchanged. A large majority of Democrats don't want him to run in 2024 -- without having any idea of a replacement. And a sizable number of Americans believe Biden is too old and possibly too senile to lead the nation.

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Inflation is reaching double figures and gasoline prices drain American pocketbooks. To add to Biden's woes, Speaker Nancy Pelosi's reckless trip to Taiwan ignited a minor crisis with China, overshadowing Biden's wins. The demise of Biden's standing began a year ago with the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal.

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Biden had no choice except to implement the flawed Doha agreements negotiated by the Trump administration and the Taliban, committing to a 2020 American withdrawal. That did not excuse the mishandling of the Kabul evacuation. That debacle continues to damage Biden's reputation and approval ratings.

But like his successors who survived crises, will Biden recover? The state of American politics today and a government that is failed and failing suggests, at best, that Biden faces a very formidable challenge to overcome. Why?

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Politics today are zero sum, reflecting a nation divided almost down the middle on almost every issue. Compromise is no longer tolerable or useful. And civility marks a sign of weakness not maturity.

A corollary is that when politics become absolute in nature, flexibility, ambiguity and uncertainty cannot be tolerated by either side. The debate over the Inflation Reduction Act is Exhibit A. Democrats assert that the law will make unprecedented advances in dealing with health and energy and reduce the debt, inflation and drug prices. Americans making $400,000 a year will see no tax hikes.

Republicans dismiss these assertions, pointing out flaws in the IRA as they see them. Those in the public interested in or curious about the law are unlikely to read it . Who then to trust? The answer is one's political party. Hence, the actual effects of what the IRA will or will not do are determined by what each party asserts rather than what the law states.

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In the past, political parties harshly criticized the other for being wrong. Now the loyal opposition is no longer loyal. The opposition is evil. And destroying rather than co-existing with the other party is an unstated aim.

These are particularly strange times. A month ago, Republicans were set on winning 30-40 House seats and a strong Senate majority. Today, according to Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, the Senate vote is dead even. And Republican control of the House is forecast by only a handful of seats.

Suppose that by the end of October, inflation has declined to 5% or 6% and gas is $3 a gallon. That clearly would help the president and Democrats possibly enough to maintain control of Congress. The extraordinary and contradictory state of American politics is that Biden could well survive while still being the most unpopular president in history.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large." Follow him @harlankullman.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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