Biden’s gaffes are getting on voters’ nerves

Rarely have nine words sparked such global consternation as President Joe Biden’s spontaneous reference to Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Poland on Saturday. Mr. Biden’s declaration, “For God’s sake, this man can’t stay in power!” unsettled allies, fueled Putin’s paranoia, buried the President’s intended message and complicated an already grave situation.

Mr. Biden’s blooper is just the latest in a long line of harrowing false statements. He makes them worse with his unwavering denial after the fact. For example, his announcement of regime change by Putin during his trip was preceded by a presidential threat that America would “unleash a backlash in kind” if Russia used chemical weapons (the US has no such weapons and signed a treaty in which they pledged not to use) and a suggestion to the 82nd Airborne troops that they would go to Ukraine (they don’t). When asked by Fox News’ Peter Doocy about that triple slip Monday at the White House launch of his 2023 budget, the president replied, “None of the three materialized.”

For real? Asking Americans to believe Mr. Biden instead of their own eyes is not a successful tactic in the age of instant repetition. He would have been better off just repeating ad nauseam the words on his pocket card, which photographers captured with an over-the-shoulder closeup: “I expressed the moral outrage I felt.”

All of the gaffes, purges, and rejections have eroded Mr. Biden’s standing with American voters. The president’s false testimonies, which have to be “cleared up” by White House officials, have undermined confidence in his competence.

This pattern likely affected Mr. Biden’s registration numbers. After his inauguration, he averaged 56% approval to 36% disapproval on Real Clear Politics, but the president’s numbers began to decline rapidly. Its numbers plummeted around August 21 during the Afghanistan debacle and then rose slightly from late November to mid-December. But his numbers still weren’t that good and soon started falling again. It’s now settled at a dangerously low level: 41% agree, 53% disagree.

Worse, Mr. Biden’s blips appear to have tarnished his image as a strong leader — something important to America’s standing abroad and critical to the effectiveness of any president in advancing his agenda at home. In October 2020, just before his election, a Fox News poll found that 49% of voters said Mr. Biden was a strong leader, while 45% said he was not. That was hardly a good start as President. It’s gotten worse: A Fox News poll released on Feb. 22, 2022 found that just 36% now see the president as a strong leader, while 61% don’t. Mr. Biden’s standing as a leader is down 13 points among suburbanites, who played a large part in swinging the 2018 midterm election and the 2020 presidential election in Democrats’ favor. His image as a strong leader has also fallen 13 points among white males, 14 points among rural voters, and 15 points among non-college-educated whites and moderates — whose support for GOP wins this fall and Democratic losses, especially for , is crucial could be the dwindling ranks of the latter’s Congressional moderates.

The president’s verbal blunders also likely influenced responses to the Fox News poll’s question as to whether he “has the sanity to serve effectively as president.” In September 2020, 49% answered yes, while 45% said no. Not so great. It gets worse: The February 22 Fox News poll found that only 44% think he has the necessary sanity, while 53% think he doesn’t.

If Mr. Biden manages to act competently and presidentially – say he supports a successful solution to the Ukraine war and passes an important piece of national legislation – his approval ratings may still not change significantly. It’s difficult to move numbers in a good direction once a president is seen as weak and ineffective. Even if things get better under his watch, voters are likely to attribute the improvements to other political actors, the environment, or themselves, not the president. Mr. Biden is caught in a vicious circle where each wave of gaffes and corrections makes him appear weaker and less effective.

Mr. Biden and his aides face enormous challenges. He’s been verbally undisciplined for decades and isn’t going to change now. That means more misstatements to come. The best Team Biden can hope for is more discipline in the cleanup effort. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and his communications team should try to get Mr. Biden to break his habit of doggedly denying reality. Good luck with it.

White House staffers should remember that every time there is an incident like this, it becomes even harder to see Mr. Biden as a candidate for re-election. In 2024, voters from both parties may be looking for candidates who are more disciplined with their words and younger. The GOP and Democrats would be wise to offer candidates who can meet those expectations.

Mr. Rove helped organize the American Crossroads political action committee and is the author of The Triumph of William McKinley (Simon & Schuster, 2015).

Potomac Watch (01/13/22): A year after his inaugural speech calling for “unity,” Joe Biden has stirred up division with a voting rights speech Mitch McConnell called “incoherent, wrong, and under his post.” So why has the President’s rhetoric become so harsh? Images: AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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