Biden’s Unpopularity

Shortly after taking office, President Biden called on the government to do better. “We have to prove democracy still works,” he told Congress. “That our government still works — and we can deliver for our people.”

Most Americans seem to believe Biden has not done so: 42 percent of Americans approve of his job performance, while 53 percent disapprove, according to FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls.

In today’s newsletter, I want to use Covid as a case study for how Biden failed to persuade Americans that the government delivered and instead cemented perceptions that it cannot.

Polling suggests that Covid — not the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan — jump-started Biden’s political problems. His approval rating began to drop in July, weeks before the withdrawal.

That timing coincides with the rise of the Delta variant and reports that vaccine protection against infection was not holding up. Both came after Biden suggested for months that an “Independence Day” from Covid was near, setting up Americans for disappointment as it became clear that his administration would not fulfill arguably its biggest promise.

At first, the Biden administration’s pandemic response helped highlight how government can solve a big problem. Millions of Americans were receiving shots a day — a campaign that Biden compared to wartime mobilization.

But then things went awry, culminating in the disappointment many Americans now feel toward Biden’s handling of Covid.

Biden’s administration gave mixed messages on boosters and masks that at times appeared to contradict data and experts. As we have covered before, U.S. officials often have not trusted the public with the truth about Covid and precautions.

Congress also lagged behind, with pandemic funding caught in intraparty squabbles and partisan fights — the kind of gridlock that has often prevented lawmakers from getting things done in recent years.

“American government is fairly slow and very incremental,” said Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University. “That makes it very difficult to be responsive.”

Perhaps Biden’s biggest mistake was, as Azari put it, “overpromising.” He spent early last summer suggesting that vaccines would soon make Covid a concern of the past — a view some experts shared at the time, too.

Biden could not control what followed, as the virus persisted. But he could have set more realistic expectations for how a notoriously unpredictable pandemic would unfold.

Another problem preceded Biden’s presidency: the political polarization of the pandemic. It made vaccines a red-versus-blue issue, with many Republicans refusing to get shots. Yet the vaccines remain the single best weapon against Covid.

Given the high polarization, Biden’s options against Covid are now limited. His support for vaccines can even turn Republicans against the shots, one study found.

“There is more that could be done, but the impact would probably only be at the margins, rather than transformative,” said Jen Kates of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Even if Biden cannot do much, the public will likely hold him responsible for future Covid surges; voters expect presidents to solve difficult issues. “People blame the administration for problems that are largely outside its control,” said Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College.

Biden framed his call to deliver as a test for American democracy. He drew comparisons to the 1930s — “another era when our democracy was tested,” then by the threat of fascism. He pointed to new threats: Donald Trump challenging the legitimacy of U.S. elections and China’s president, Xi Jinping, betting that “democracy cannot keep up with him.”

There is a historical factor, too. Since the Vietnam War and Watergate, Americans’ trust in their government has fallen. If Biden had succeeded, he could have helped reverse this trend.

But Covid, and the government’s response to it, did the opposite. Trust in the C.D.C. fell throughout the pandemic: from 69 percent in April 2020 to 44 percent in January, according to NBC News.

Distrust in government can turn into a vicious cycle. The government needs the public’s trust to get things done — like, say, a mass vaccination campaign. Without that support, government efforts will be less successful. And as the government is less successful, the public will lose more faith in it.

Given the polarization surrounding Covid and the government’s mixed record, skepticism seems a more likely outcome than the renaissance of trust that Biden called for.

With vivid colors, ear-worm songs and simple animation, the cartoon series “CoComelon” has an almost hypnotic effect on toddlers. The show is the second-largest channel on YouTube and holds a firm spot on Netflix’s top 10.

This is all by design — “CoComelon” is a production of Moonbug Entertainment, a London company that produces several of the world’s most popular online kids’ shows.

Moonbug treats children’s shows like a science, where every aesthetic choice or potential plot point is data-driven and rigorously tested with its target audience. Should the music be louder or more mellow? Should the bus be yellow or red? The answer is yellow — infants are apparently drawn to yellow buses, as well as minor injuries and stuff covered in dirt.

“The trifecta for a kid would be a dirty yellow bus that has a boo-boo,” a Moonbug exec said during a company story session. “Broken fender, broken wheel, little grimace on its face.”

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