As his poll numbers sink, is Joe Biden in trouble? If he is, it's good trouble.

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President Joe Biden at the White House with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on March 12, 2021, in Washington.
President Joe Biden at the White House with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on March 12, 2021, in Washington.

Bill Clinton once said that in times of uncertainty, voters prefer leaders who are strong and wrong rather than weak and right. Joe Biden is betting they will decide next year – in the midterm elections – that he and his party have been strong and right. If his bet is wrong, at least he will have done all the good he can for as many as he can for as long as he can.

There is no point in being timid. After decades of chronic underinvestment in American human and physical capital, and 20 years of war that consumed U.S. blood and treasure and destabilized the Middle East, we need a course correction. Biden, like Ronald Reagan, wants to give it to us. And, to echo Donald Trump, what the hell does he (or we) have to lose?

Biden was the stealth contender in 2020 – the person everyone thought they knew well after his decades in public life, the candidate no one feared. The nice guy, even if you didn’t agree with him. Now, at 78, presiding over tiny, fragile House and Senate majorities that could disappear at any time in the next 18 months, he is finally the boss –the decider, as George W. Bush called himself. And Biden has decided America needs a reboot.

Still in the thick of COVID-19

The next few weeks will be crucial to his success or failure. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has already made his stand (on the conservative Wall Street Journal opinion page): After supporting the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in March and $1.2 trillion for physical infrastructure last month, he says he can’t support $3.5 trillion “or anywhere near that level of additional spending,” the price tag on the 10-year spending bill Biden and Democrats have teed up next.

To be fair to Manchin, his op-ed was published last Thursday, the day before a disheartening jobs report that showed 235,000 jobs were added in August – compared with the 750,000 economists expected and the 943,000 added in July.

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Amethyst, 5, holds a picture of her father, Erin "Toke" Tokley, who died of COVID in March, on Aug. 29, 2021, in Secane, Pa.
Amethyst, 5, holds a picture of her father, Erin "Toke" Tokley, who died of COVID in March, on Aug. 29, 2021, in Secane, Pa.

Clearly we are not out of the COVID woods. Daily coronavirus infections on Labor Day 2021 were four times higher than they were on Labor Day 2020. Daily deaths are almost twice as high. And yet, nearly 9 million people – gig workers, independent contractors and the self-employed – lost all unemployment benefits on Labor Day when a special pandemic program for them expired. More than 2 million lost a pandemic-era $300 a week increase in state unemployment insurance.

An eviction moratorium expired July 31, though more than 6 million renters are behind on their rent. And schools and day care centers are in flux about their plans, leaving families in the lurch – one possible reason for the shocking August jobs shortfall. So it's hard to argue people don't still need help.

Still, Biden is not on a roll. His poll numbers have plummeted since the traumatic U.S. exit from Afghanistan, persistent pockets of COVID vaccine resistance, rampant spread of the delta variant, and a stalled out recovery.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden watch a Marine Corps carry team move a transfer case containing the remains of Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo, 25, of Lawrence, Mass., on Aug. 29, 2021, at Dover Air Force Base, Del.
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden watch a Marine Corps carry team move a transfer case containing the remains of Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo, 25, of Lawrence, Mass., on Aug. 29, 2021, at Dover Air Force Base, Del.

At the seven-month mark, according to ABC News-Washington Post polling, Biden is one of only three presidents since Harry Truman with an approval rating below 50%. The others were Gerald Ford, who pardoned Richard Nixon on Sept. 8, 1974, and Trump, who around that time was dealing with hurricanes and rising tensions with North Korea, arguing that businesses had a right to discriminate against gay people, and cutting off the broadly popular DACA program allowing many undocumented people brought to the United States as children to get permits to legally stay in the United States.

Biden has a few advantages those presidents did not have. The Afghanistan departure was chaotic, tragic and widely panned, but majorities in polls still say it was time to leave – and the subject overall is not top of mind for voters.

It was time to leave: We can't make a country care about its own women. Only Afghanistan can do that.

The rest of Biden's agenda tracks with the health and economic issues most people consider important, including stimulus checks and child tax credit increases in the American Rescue Plan, the bipartisan Senate infrastructure package awaiting House approval, and the new $3.5 trillion package that needs the votes of every single Democratic senator (including Manchin) plus Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking 51st vote.

Biden budget priorities are his values

Is that a lot of money? Will it feed inflation and the national debt? It’s all a matter of perspective. You didn’t hear Republicans in past years fretting about how their huge tax cuts drove up the deficit and debt. You didn’t see Bush 43 trying to pay for his long wars or his Medicare prescription drug program. The Affordable Care Act signed by President Barack Obama, by contrast, was designed to reduce the deficit.

Afghanistan exit: Chaos and risk, but Biden critics are getting it mostly wrong

This week Democrats are looking at raising taxes on corporations and households with incomes over $400,000 to help finance their $3.5 trillion plan. That’s popular. So are the proposals themselves – including paid family leave, child care subsidies, free pre-K and community college, help for DACA recipients, steps to fight and manage climate change, extending a temporary expansion of child tax credits, expansions of ACA coverage and home care for the disabled and elderly, and new dental, vision and hearing plans under Medicare.

Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget and I will tell you what you value,” Biden said in 2013. His own budget embodies values and goals shared by Democrats across the party spectrum. It's hard to imagine it won't pass in some form they can all celebrate.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie described Biden on Sunday as stubborn. He was talking about Afghanistan and he didn’t mean it as a compliment, but I took it that way. Biden is stubborn on everything at this point in his life. Any trouble he may cause or get into will be what the late John Lewis called "good trouble," the kind that is necessary for progress.

Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden polls: COVID and economy will matter more than Afghanistan

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