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Has Biden’s Approval Rating Bottomed Out?

Has Biden’s Approval Rating Bottomed Out?

Saturday, 26 February, 2022 - 06:00

It’s too soon yet to know whether President Joe Biden will get any short-term, “rally around the flag” boost in his approval rating from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But after a very tough six months, it looks like his low numbers have stabilized for now, and perhaps even recovered a little. My speculation is that it’s all about the end of the omicron wave of Covid-19.

Let’s go to the numbers. Biden is at 42.1% approval (according to the always-helpful FiveThirtyEight estimate of the polling average). That’s awful; it’s the second-worst of any president of the polling era through 401 days in office, beating only Donald Trump’s even more dismal 39.1%. Still, that’s something of a rebound for Biden. His lowest end-of-day number was 41.2%, first achieved on Jan. 26, and he actually spent a couple of days recently tied with Trump in dead last before improving a bit where Trump, over the same period in 2018, slumped.

We shouldn’t read too much into minor fluctuations. But it’s quite possible that the pandemic is the driving force behind US public opinion right now. Here’s one story that’s consistent with the numbers: Biden’s approval rating began falling soon after cases began to rise in July 2021; they fell steadily until the delta wave peaked; they plateaued as that wave dissipated; they fell again until omicron peaked and then leveled off as it ebbed; and they began rising again in the last week as case counts and hospitalization numbers finally reached fairly low numbers.

It’s impossible to prove this story; there are simply too many potential causes (Afghanistan! Inflation! Legislation! And now, Ukraine!) for only one fairly small effect. But it would also help explain the disproportionately terrible evaluations people have of the economy. Certainly, one reason people think the economy is bad is the return of inflation. But with excellent numbers on jobs, growth and more, the news on inflation alone simply isn’t enough to account for evaluations this bad. It’s possible that the lousy numbers are capturing unusual economic circumstances that standard statistical reports don’t account for. My guess, however, is that the double-whammy of the delta and omicron waves just has everyone unhappy, and that they’re perceiving everything — the economy, the president and more — negatively as a result.

Even now, with case counts fewer than one-tenth as high as during omicron’s peak, the daily average is still a bit above the lowest point in December, and well above the summer lows. Hospitalization and deaths, which lag behind cases, are still relatively high; the US just dropped below 2,000 deaths a day, about four times the rate from July. If it’s true that the pandemic is driving public opinion, it’s not surprising that any turnaround only started in the past several weeks or so.

As for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: If there is any effect, positive or negative, it’s highly unlikely to last long. What should worry Biden is any spillover effects on the economy. Even if people wind up thinking he’s handling the situation well, his overall approval will probably be driven far more by the economy than by how he’s perceived to be dealing with foreign affairs. And even if lousy ratings are driven by the pandemic and would improve as omicron fades, that won’t protect Biden if the more traditional measures of the economy turn negative.


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