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Biden’s Popularity Slips a Little, But Remains Unusually Steady

Biden’s Popularity Slips a Little, But Remains Unusually Steady

Wednesday, 7 July, 2021 - 04:30

Joe Biden’s approval rating fell to its lowest point during his presidency last month, and he exits the July 4 holiday weekend at just 51.9% approval, close to that June low (as usual, I’m using the excellent FiveThirtyEight estimate, based on an adjusted average of all the reputable polls). At the same time, it’s just as likely that Biden’s popularity is holding steady rather than actually slipping. He remains in a narrow range, between a high of 55.1% approval and a low of 51.7%. It’s possible he’s fallen a bit; it’s also possible that his approval rating has been unchanged from Jan. 20 and that any apparent fluctuations are just statistical noise.

Either way, Biden’s numbers place him right about in the middle of recent presidents. At the 166-day point in their presidencies, he’s beating four presidents from the polling era: Donald Trump, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and, by a very narrow margin, George W. Bush. The other nine polling-era presidents are all beating him. What distinguishes Biden continues to be how flat his approval line is. Every previous president except Trump had either started his presidency above 60% approval or had spiked up to that level at some point by now. And they all had a larger range observed in the polls at this point; Ronald Reagan, for example, had already experienced a 17-percentage-point surge and then a 10-point drop.

Presidential approval is a major factor in midterm election results. But it’s still too early to guess where Biden will be next summer or fall. Indeed, my guess would be that last week’s excellent jobs numbers are more helpful in predicting Biden’s future popularity than his current popularity would be.

The main usefulness of looking at history is to remind us how much things can change. George W. Bush became far more popular in time for his first midterms in 2002 than he was in July 2001. Jimmy Carter at 166 days was a solidly popular president; indeed, he’s the only one of the last 10 (including Biden) to stay above 60% approval throughout his early presidency, and he would remain there for another two months before slumping and never fully recovering. We can also look at Clinton and Reagan as reminders that presidents can be quite unpopular when the midterms come around but wind up with easy re-elections and remain popular for most or all of their second terms.

It’s possible that the era of significant presidential popularity swings is in the past. Some specialists believe that strong partisan polarization makes presidential popularity simply a function of partisan affiliation, and that we should expect future presidents to have flat approval lines just as Biden has had this year and Trump had for much of his presidency. I remain skeptical about that, although Biden’s presidency so far has added to the evidence that big surges and drops maybe no longer be possible. Still, I expect that a sustained economy rally will boost any president’s popularity, and a normal recession will show up in lower approval ratings (even if the highly unusual economic circumstances of 2020 didn’t do that).


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