In a remarkable interview last Friday, ABC News anchor David Muir pulled back the curtain to reveal a President Joe Biden who seemed disconnected with the political reality swirling around him and his White House.
Here was a commander in chief unable to remember whether he had spoken with the mayor of a small Ohio town experiencing one of the worst chemical accidents in recent memory, a catastrophic train derailment that had dominated the news for three weeks.
Muir simply asked the president if he had talked with the mayor of East Palestine. Biden responded: “I can’t recall that I. I don’t think I’ve talked to the mayor. I talked to everyone else there multiple times. Talked to both the senators, both governors. And I’ve talked to everyone there to talk to. And we’ve made it clear that everything is available.”
That was the best this president could summon for a group of his fellow Americans, frightened and worried they may lose everything they’ve dreamed of and worked for?
He sounded more like a federal bureaucrat than a man who has spent a lifetime in politics portraying himself as “Lunch Bucket Joe,” identifying with the concerns of the so-called little guy. Yet, here he was with people sick in East Palestine, the soil and streams now tainted with dangerous chemicals.
But this president showed little empathy. No sense of urgency. And a surprisingly low amount of compassion for a man who is familiar with personal tragedies.
He seemed oddly distant from the reality of the situation, his mind and heart still in Ukraine, when he should have been on his way to Ohio. Sending his hapless Transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, in his stead weeks after the derailment only added to the growing impression that this White House moves at only one speed: slow motion.
It was an inexplicable moment that I suspect prompted a lot of viewers to wonder just how detached this president really is from the people he was elected to lead.
Biden answered that question himself with an odd response when Muir raised the issue of Biden’s negative poll numbers, which have barely moved despite Biden’s claims of great economic progress and historic legislative “victories.” Muir pointed out that a recent ABC News poll found 41 percent of people said they were worse off since Biden took office — while only 16 percent said they were better off.
Ignoring his own responsibility for an electorate that has soured on him and his policies, the president told Muir, “I think it goes well beyond the economy. … Can you think of anything, turn on the television and go, ‘God, that makes me feel good’? Everything is in the negative.”
“I don’t blame people for being down, you know, when you had the year, two years of the pandemic, kids out of school, the mental health problems in the country … seriously increased, especially among young people,” Biden added. “Inflation is still higher than it should be, and, you know, everything from gasoline prices to a war going on in Ukraine. I mean, so I can’t think of a time when there’s been greater uncertainty.”
It was at this moment in the interview that one had to wonder in what kind of bubble does Joe Biden operate?
If there is uncertainty in the country, that’s on him and his policies, which have not produced the prosperity, progress or unity he promised. If inflation is too high, perhaps he might reflect upon the possibility that maybe, just maybe, his economic policies, his energy policies, his total focus on climate, are not only not working but making matters worse for the ordinary American family.
Biden is right that people are down. They are down on him and the direction of the country. In Tuesday’s RealClearPolitics right track/wrong track average, 27 percent of voters thought the country was on the right track, while 64 percent of the electorate said the country was on the wrong track. In fact, over the past 18 months, the average wrong track for each month was 61 percent — or higher.
That’s not progress by any realistic definition.
Biden and his defenders are blaming the media, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Republicans and former President Donald Trump — though not necessarily in that order — for his underwater poll numbers. Not the historic inflation that is still making life hard for most Americans nor his commitment to overregulation that added to it. Not his disastrous energy policies that have raised the price of almost everything. Not the botched Afghanistan withdrawal nor the supply chain mess nor his open border policy.
Not his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, nor his inflationary spending packages, nor airline disruptions, nor crazy financial markets, nor classified documents. Just in the month of February alone, Americans saw the White House mishandle not only the East Palestine derailment but the expensive Chinese balloon episode — complete with three shot-down balloons that still remain a mystery.
No wonder the American people are not happy with the state of the union. For two years, it has been one wrong move after another from this White House, a roller coaster of catastrophes, that have cost this president, his staff and his Cabinet their credibility with much of the public.
Credibility is the lifeblood of successful governing. It allows leaders to communicate with an electorate open and willing to listen. Regaining the confidence of the voters, once lost, is usually a cumulative process rather than an overnight reversal, one that relies on transparency and, in the case of this president, a willingness to rethink policies and the people who implement them.
Like other presidents who found themselves in the doldrums, Biden must earn back his standing with the electorate. A good first step would be to stop blaming others and take responsibility for his mistakes. It will also take a good-faith effort to work with Republicans to bring back economic stability and the unity he promised.
It also means Biden must trade in his progressive bubble, reconsider the capabilities of his team and acknowledge that his policies have failed to connect with the American people. If anyone needed proof, the Muir interview exposed a president in need of a dose of reality.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.