What’s dragging down President Joe Biden’s approval ratings?
Biden’s approval ratings have declined on nearly every issue and among nearly every demographic group in national surveys over the past two months, as the promise of a return to normalcy has given way to rising inflation, a simmering pandemic, gridlock in Washington and chaos on the border and in Afghanistan.
The president’s approval ratings have sunk into the low-to-mid 40s, putting him into rather lonely historical company. In the era of modern polling, only Donald Trump had a lower approval rating at this early stage of his term.
There’s no evidence the damage to Biden is irreparable.
Many presidents have won reelection after watching their ratings fall to similar depths during their first two years in office. Voters can have a short memory. And while Biden’s losses have been pronounced among reliable Democratic constituencies, such as young, Latino and even Black voters, those groups can also be relatively easy for Democrats to win back.
But as a fleeting snapshot, the polls seem to depict a pessimistic and even hopeless electorate. Not only do Americans believe the nation is on the wrong track, they say the country is worse off than it was a year ago, when Trump was still president.
A Grinnell College/Selzer poll showed Biden and Trump tied at 40% in a hypothetical national matchup. No live interview national phone survey showed Trump faring so well against Biden over the final six months before the 2020 election.
The pessimism of the electorate is at once a cause and an effect of Biden’s challenges. On the one hand, they blame Biden for deteriorating conditions. On the other, their pessimism reflects serious doubts about whether the administration can handle the challenges facing the country.
Despite fading from the news, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan still seems to loom over the administration. Even weeks later, voters still say “Afghanistan” is the negative thing they have most recently heard about Biden. And since the withdrawal, a majority of voters have routinely said that the Biden administration is incompetent. Perhaps in part as a result, voters have little confidence in the administration’s ability to address other problems.
More than 60% of voters say Biden is responsible for rising inflation, according to a recent Morning Consult/Politico poll. And 52% of Americans expect the economy to get worse over the next 12 months.
A CNBC poll found that inflation is tied with the coronavirus as the most important issue facing the nation, as more voters say they’ve personally encountered shortages and rising prices. In a reversal from preelection polls in 2020, voters say it’s more important for the government to address the economy than contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Biden’s handling of the coronavirus continues to be a relative political bright spot. Polls show that most voters approve of his requirement that employees of large companies either get a vaccine or take a test. But his ratings on the virus have nonetheless declined since the summer, as the delta variant dashed any hopes of a quick end to the pandemic.
By one measure, the pandemic was now only the eighth most concerning issue to voters, even trailing hot-button cultural issues like the southern border and what’s taught in public schools.
The president’s focus, however, largely lies elsewhere: on Capitol Hill, where he’s bogged down in negotiations over his legislative agenda. The polls offer little indication that the stalemate in Washington has cost him support with the public.
Even so, the passage of the president’s infrastructure and spending bills could be a first step toward regaining his political footing. A positive accomplishment might begin to restore some of the confidence that Biden lost during the tumultuous Afghanistan withdraw. And the bills, which attempt to fulfill a long list of progressive policy priorities, might be well-suited to the task of luring back Democratic-leaning voters who have soured on his presidency.
For some Democrats, Biden’s apparent weakness among young, Latino and Black voters has been alarming. It comes on the heels of Trump’s strong performance among nonwhite and especially Latino voters in the 2020 election, raising the possibility that Biden’s weakness today is part of a longer-term trend, not simply the ephemeral result of an unusually unfavorable political environment.
Overall, Biden’s approval rating has fallen to around 50% among Latino voters in national surveys conducted since the fall of Kabul.
Biden has held on to more of his support among white, college-educated voters than any other demographic group, while continuing to lose ground among white voters without college degrees. He’s also held more of his support among men, who surprisingly swung his way in 2020, while losing ground among women, who did not.
The polls offer relatively little indication of why some demographic groups have been more repelled by Biden’s performance than others. Biden appears to have lost ground among core Democratic constituencies for the same reason he’s lost ground among other voters. That would not necessarily ameliorate Democratic concerns that they’re losing support among young or Latino voters; in fact, it would suggest that many Latino or young voters could be among the first to abandon the Democrats when the going gets tough.
But it would also suggest that Biden doesn’t face any particularly serious obstacle to recovering among these groups if the pandemic fades, the economy grows and normalcy returns. And there’s a long record of presidents recovering from an early slump with the help of strong economic growth. Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all saw their ratings sink as low as Biden’s are today, before ultimately recovering to win reelection.
The case of Truman, a Democrat who presided over the chaotic adjustment back to a peacetime economy after World War II, provides an especially instructive lesson.
The story seems especially familiar today: As wartime economic measures came to an end, pent-up consumer spending soared and inflation surged to its highest levels of the last century — even higher than the 1970s, and dwarfing inflation today. The largest wave of labor unrest in U.S. history spread across the country. Truman seemed incapable of doing anything about it all. His ratings fell, and Republicans won Congress for the first time since the Great Depression.
In retrospect, the unrest of 1946 was the prelude to abundant postwar prosperity. Truman would famously win an upset reelection bid and retake Congress.
That’s exactly what Biden will hope to do, if Democrats lose control of Congress in the midterms. No president, however, has managed to pull it off since Truman, whose bust watches over Biden in the Oval Office.