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Voters ask: Is anything working in America?

Is holding your own as a sitting president worth cheering?

A gas station in Virginia shows still-high prices last month.
A gas station in Virginia shows still-high prices last month. (Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In the movie “Apollo 13,” everybody remembers the moment an oxygen tank explodes putting the spacecraft and the lives of the astronauts at great risk. The NASA team, faced with a catastrophic failure, is in turmoil when Gene Kranz, NASA flight director, takes charge and focuses the group on what he sees as their core dilemma — the status of the problem — and asks, “What’ve we got on the spacecraft that’s good?”

In other words, what is still working? One of the team members responds, “I’ll get back to you, Gene.”

This story encapsulates the mood of America today, just slightly more than a year before the next presidential election. When it comes to the state of the country, especially the economy, recent survey data shows that the American public, more and more, is asking virtually the same question posed by Kranz: “What, if anything, is working these days in America?”

The data shows, voters are waiting for an answer and they aren’t happy with rising inflation, higher gas prices, more crime, more illegal immigration and a growing feeling that no one is in charge.

The defeat of President Joe Biden is a real possibility; but public opinion data is showing a much tighter presidential race than one would expect, given Biden’s job approval and favorability numbers. Last week, CNN released a survey (conducted Aug. 25-31) that tested Biden against seven Republican candidates. In it, five of the seven candidates had a lead over Biden, one was tied, and the other trailed by 1 percentage point.

Press releases went out immediately promoting the idea that virtually all the Republican candidates were leading Biden and the others were very competitive, reflecting the strength of the Republican field and the weakness of Biden.

Left-leaning news outlets were happy to report the data through a different lens, claiming that Biden was holding his own, based on the closeness of the head-to-head matchups, against what they see as an extreme Republican field.

In reality, six of the seven Republican candidates ranged from a lead of 2 percentage points, which is within the poll’s margin of error, to trailing by 1 percentage point. That shows positive movement for some of the field. What didn’t get much coverage was the fact that one candidate actually had a solid lead of 6 percentage points over Biden, 49 percent to his 43 percent. An interesting result that upcoming surveys will either verify or not.

But, overall, it is Biden’s poor results that beg the question whether holding your own as a sitting president is something to cheer?

Biden has struggled to regain his standing with the American electorate since the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal. His decline in voter support accelerated as inflation surged to highs we haven’t seen since the early 1980s. Since then, the country has had four recessions, but people have not seen anything like Biden’s near-record inflation that hit the American economy after he signed the American Rescue Plan.

The reaction from the public has been harsh. Based on RealClearPolitics’ current averages, 64 percent of the electorate believes the country is on the wrong track; 64 percent disapprove of how Biden has handled inflation and 59 percent disapprove of his handling of the economy.

But in other policy areas he has struggled as well, with a 61 percent disapproval of his handling of immigration; 57 percent disapproval on crime, and 56 percent disapproval on foreign policy. Among independents, polls show even higher disapprovals. In a recent CBS poll (conducted Sept. 5-8), 74 percent of independents disapproved of Biden’s handling of the economy, which is staggering, and even more astonishing, 80 percent of them disapprove of his handling of inflation.

In analyzing survey data over the years, these are some of the worst numbers I’ve seen for a president on what are the voters’ top issues. All of which explains why people are asking if anything is going right in the country these days?

So, if people are this down on Biden and his policies, the fact that he is still viable in presidential ballot tests is a bit of a conundrum that ought to concern GOP leaders. Given his standing with the electorate, most of the Republican candidates should be doing better. Looking at the CNN data from a Democratic point of view, they can claim Biden significantly trailed only one out of the seven Republican candidates. Of course, all it takes to defeat an incumbent, especially one with numbers like Biden’s, is one effective challenger whose vision and ideas appeal to voters.

But while the president is struggling to sell “Bidenomics,” the response from some of the Republican base and their congressional representatives has been centered around whether to shut down the government. With major concerns about inflation, Republicans risk being seen as tone deaf when it comes to the nation’s priorities, especially if gas and food prices continue to rise.

If even a minority of congressional Republicans manage to shut down the government and the economy gets worse, Biden will have carte blanche to blame all the economic woes after that on the shutdown and on every Republican running for office. Even better for him, he can avoid the negative political impact of his spending and energy policies.

A shutdown, which the media will also denounce as the result of Republican “extreme” policies, is a high-risk strategy. Its outcome, good or bad, may not impact the Republicans in safe, conservative districts who are promoting it, but going forward without an alternative puts the GOP presidential candidates and the House and Senate majorities at risk.

Republicans currently have a lead on economic issues with voters. Retaining that advantage is crucial to a Republican win in the 2024 elections.

The debt ceiling vote was a win for Republicans in terms of both politics and policy. A shutdown would undo that progress as well as undermine Republican credibility with voters to handle the economy going forward, especially independents. This key voting group is focused on economic issues and getting things done. A shutdown is the opposite of what they want — action on the cost-of-living, on interest rates, on regulation, on energy, on immigration and on housing.

Republicans have a major opening in 2024 — but they need to “work the problem” as Gene Kranz put it, “not make things worse by guessing.”

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.

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