Biden’s Approval Is Low, Except Compared With Everyone Else’s

Q. What do you call someone who speaks only one language?

A. An American.

It’s an old joke, but it still works. In fact, I’m monolingual myself, even though my academic work was largely focused on international trade and finance. In my defense, the great bulk of global economic research is published in English; and in general, Americans’ lack of language skills is less important than their insularity, their relative unfamiliarity with what happens and how things work in other nations.

Other countries, especially wealthy ones that more or less match the United States in technological development and general ability to get things done, are a sort of mirror that helps us see ourselves more clearly. Yet many Americans, even supposedly knowledgeable commentators, often seem unaware of both the ways other nations are similar to us and the ways they are different.

In particular, with the looming election on everyone’s mind, how many are aware that President Biden is among the more popular — well, less unpopular — leaders in the Western world?

I’ll come back to that surprising fact, and what it tells us, in a minute. First, let’s talk about some other international comparisons that seem relevant to the current situation.

Although we hear politicians on the campaign trail trying to make hay with the old Reagan-era question — Are you better off than you were four years ago? — there’s a lot of amnesia about what was actually happening in 2020, namely a deadly, terrifying pandemic. To some extent, I guess, people treat Covid-19 as an act of God, beyond the reach of politicians.

But that isn’t really true. No matter what we did, many people were going to die — but the death toll was affected by politics, perhaps especially by the way vaccines became a front in the culture war. And America had a really bad pandemic, even compared with its peers. U.S. life expectancy was already lagging behind comparable countries’ by 2019, but the gap widened after Covid-19 struck.

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