Benjamin A. Kleinerman is the R.W. Morrison Professor of Political Science at Baylor University. He is the Editor of The Constitutionalist.
“Energy in the executive is the leading character in the definition of good government.”—Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #70
It is not partisan to say that the Biden Presidency hasn’t lived up to the hopes of his supporters. His approval rating has dipped from a high at 53% just after his election to its current lowest position at 42%. Although the trajectory of his approval rating has remained higher than Donald Trump’s first year in office, it has been lower than every other President in the modern era. And, while it’s hard to imagine in our era of hyper-partisanship the 70+ approval ratings that the two Bushes had at certain times, Barack Obama’s approval rating remained mostly in the 50s. Compare that to the 42% approval/53% disapproval at which Biden now sits.
To understand why Biden’s approval is so low, however, it’s useful to recall why both Bushes enjoyed such high approval ratings during their terms. George H.W. Bush’s approval rating soared to as much as 85% in the midst of the first war in Iraq. George W. Bush’s approval ratings surpassed even his Dad’s at 88% in the wake of 9/11. In both cases, a war and/or a crisis seems to have precipitated what scholars often refer to as the “rally ‘round the flag effect.” In the midst of a war or a crisis, the people rally around the nation and thus they rally around the President of their nation. Presidential approval ratings skyrocket, these scholars argue, because they correspond to the increasing popularity of the United States as a nation. But it’s worth noting that George W. Bush’s approval ratings continued to fall from their post-9/11 high even during the second Iraq war. And Barack Obama doesn’t seem to have enjoyed any kind of bump during the quasi-war with Libya. Finally, despite the seeming existential crisis of the Iran-hostage affair, Jimmy Carter’s approval ratings fell as low as 30% during it.
This suggests that the connection between war/crisis and presidential approval is more complicated than the “rally ‘round the flag effect” would suggest. After all, why wouldn’t the increased salience of the troubles in Afghanistan have bolstered Biden’s approval ratings? Why didn’t the nation rally around him in that time of trouble? Instead of increasing, however, Biden’s approval falls below his disapproval at almost exactly the same time as Afghanistan fell under Taliban control in August 2021. The downward cycle in his approval ratings seems to have begun in Afghanistan and only worsened since. As I will argue, he was perceived as lacking “energy” in Afghanistan; everything he has done since has fallen into that same narrative.
To explain why certain presidents have enjoyed tremendous booms in approval during wars and crises while others have not, we need to incorporate the founders’ conception of executive “energy.” When presidents look “energetic” in response to wars and crises, the public rallies around them. When they fail to look “energetic” in response to the same, the public not only doesn’t rally, they may actively abandon the President. This difference helps explain the differences in public response even for the same President. Whereas George W. Bush looked energetic after 9/11 as he threatened the terrorists on the rubble of the World Trade Center, he looked weak and lacking energy when he looked out the window of Air Force One at the wreckage caused by the Hurricane Katrina crisis. His approval ratings corresponded to the two contrasting responses. It is misleading to say that the public rallies to the president during wars and crises because they only rally to a president who uses the situation to reveal a new spring of energy.
Wars and crises cause the people to fear for their security. In the wake of 9/11, we all wondered if we faced a new reality of regular terrorist attacks that would upset our basic stability. A president who displays energy, as George W. Bush did on the Trade Center rubble, gives us some confidence that he’ll keep us secure. We rally to the president because we forget about political differences in favor of fundamental security concerns. Presidents that seem commanding, as George H.W. Bush did during the first Gulf war or as Barack Obama did during Hurricane Sandy, win our support. Bush’s approval ratings were never higher than in the immediate wake of the victory in that war. Barack Obama’s distinctly presidential behavior during Hurricane Sandy helped him win reelection.
Much to the anger of many Republicans, Governor Chris Christie called Obama’s response to Sandy “presidential.” It was not clear, however, exactly what he meant by this, nor is it clear to all of us what we mean when we use that word. Seemingly, this encompasses the range of virtues we want in our presidents. To see what those virtues are, we ought look at our accusations against recent presidents. We accuse them of moral failings to the extent that they don’t live up to the virtues we want in the office. Trump was called bombastic, Obama imperious, George W. Bush stupid and obdurate, Clinton unprincipled and immoral. Turn these criticisms around and you’d have a level-headed, humble, intelligent and flexible, person of principle.
Yet, even as we imagine such a person, we still don’t yet have our ideal President. We don’t yet have him because we haven’t encompassed the most important presidential virtue to the founders and to us: “energy.” We want all of the above virtues, but, most importantly, we want the President to act decisively with force and vigor. Our desire for energy means we approved overwhelmingly of Obama’s immediate reaction to Hurricane Sandy or of Bush’s immediate reaction to 9/11. In fact, we approve of the action in and of itself. We don’t ask whether Bush’s attack on Afghanistan was prudent; we are pleased by the action regardless of its consequences. Was Obama’s response to Sandy sufficient or even necessary? It seems enough for us that he responded. Consider, by contrast, Bush’s failed response to Katrina. He seemed so indecisive and lacked so much vigor. Or, Trump’s response to Covid. He seemed unprepared and showed little strength. In the latter case, it might have been enough if Trump had just shown more gravitas in response to the situation. The gravitas itself would have suggested strength. Instead, his preening almost light-hearted press conferences were out of step with a country that wanted to imagine force and decisiveness in their President. By failing to muster sufficient energy, Trump became susceptible to the kinds of ads that Biden ran during his campaign: “a President who can’t handle a crisis is no President at all.”
In Hamilton’s quotation, however, “energy in the executive” is necessary for more than just the President’s approval ratings; he defines it as a “leading character in the definition of good government.” The people want executive decisiveness and vigor because these really are good for societal security and stability. Consider, for instance, Bush’s reaction to the Katrina disaster in New Orleans. By failing to respond decisively, thousands more died than would have if the President had sent in real help through the National Guard. Or, Trump’s response to Covid, a decisive response might have led him to facilitate and streamline supply chain issues that would have gotten things like ventilators where they needed to go more quickly. Or, to return to foreign policy, Carter’s lack of a decisive response to the hostage situation led to a prolonged crisis that achieved everything the Iranian militants wanted because it focused so much attention on the situation.
These “energy” failures bring us back to the Biden Presidency. After a recent meeting in Philadelphia, I spoke with the cab driver on the drive to the airport. The cab driver, who described himself as a life-long working-class Democrat, had grown weary with “sleepy Joe.” In Afghanistan, on inflation, on rising gas prices, and now in Ukraine, “sleepy Joe” seemed incapable, said this driver, of the kinds of firm decisions that he wanted from the President. To the extent that all of these situations do actually show some signs of Biden’s inability to act decisively, my driver’s “sleepy Joe” comments are not unjustified. He seemed weak and unprepared in Afghanistan. He seemed to lack a firm plan to combat rising inflation. Biden’s response to the albeit extraordinarily difficult situation in Ukraine has varied from seeming to accept Putin’s limited incursions to a far-reaching call for regime change. Even as he tries to seem grave and serious, his varied responses suggest a lack of decisiveness. And, it’s at least arguable that his lack of decisiveness invited Putin’s incursion. And, so again, “energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.” Knowing that Biden would lack the will to respond decisively, Putin felt this was the time to attack Ukraine.
As I said earlier, what it means for presidents to be “presidential” is often difficult to define. But, at least for the founders if not for us, “energy” is most critical to that definition. Presidents have failed (Carter in Iran; Trump during Covid) or succeeded (Bush I during the Gulf War; Bush II after 9/11) to the extent that they have embodied this essential virtue. And “success” means more than just high approval ratings; it also means that these “energetic” presidents procured for us the security and stability that we most want from government. And energy matters as much in the perception as in the reality. Perceiving that a President might do something vigorous, perhaps even all-too-vigorous, tyrants like Putin refrained from messing with us. But, to the extent that leaders around the world share my driver’s opinion of “sleepy Joe,” the lack of either energy or even the perception of energy becomes a profound concern.