Jonathan Bernstein

Biden’s Approval Slump Hits a Dreary New Milestone

The bad news for President Joe Biden is that his popularity has fallen, this past week, into dead last place. Of the 13 presidents during the polling era, none has been in worse shape at this point in his first term, almost 500 days into a presidency, than Biden’s 40.5% approval rating. That’s according to FiveThirtyEight’s estimate of his average standing in all the public opinion polls. It’s not quite Biden’s own low point — he briefly dipped a bit lower in late February — but it’s close.

Is there any good news for the president? Sort of. His 40.5% is not a historic low for first-term presidents. Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman all had lower lows. Clinton, Reagan and Truman hit bottom before being re-elected, with the latter two dipping well below 40% closer to their elections than Biden is to his. Indeed, there’s no relationship between approval ratings at the 500-day mark and re-election.

The news is worse for Democrats with respect to this November’s midterm elections, however. It’s not clear when voters make up their minds before heading to the polls for general elections, but political scientists do know that presidential approval ratings are usually strong factors affecting midterm results.

Democrats hope, at this point, that the issue context of the election will be focused on policy areas that tend to help them. And that is possible. But it seems unlikely that even if that happens, it will enough to overcome the president’s unpopularity.

It’s impossible to be certain about the reasons for Biden’s miserable ratings, but I believe that the big factors have been the pandemic and the economy, with the latter pretty much about inflation. If that’s true, then moderating prices and waning Covid-19 surges would be the factors most likely to turn things around.

That is, of course, easier said than done. Especially since what seems to matter are results, not policies, even concerning circumstances over which presidents have little short-term control. The other potential bit of good news for Biden is that what usually matters is the direction of change, not the level. So if gasoline prices trend down over the next several months from the current national average of $4.60 a gallon to $4 or so, Biden may well be better off than if prices had been at $4 the whole time, and may even be better off than if prices at the pump were slowly rising to, say, $3.75 a gallon. The same should be true of inflation overall.

But the flip side is that the same goes for economic growth and jobs. If the labor market cools but remains at a historically healthy level, voters may be more likely to punish Biden for a recent falloff than they would be to reward him for the still-low rates of unemployment.

Remember that approval ratings tend to drive pundits’ (and often politicians’) views of the president and everything he does. When a president is unpopular, then pundits ascribe that trouble to practically everything the president is doing. That’s a fallacy. If it’s true that inflation and the pandemic account for the bulk of Biden’s unpopularity, then other things he’s doing may actually be helping him, not hurting him. But much of what presidents do, even what they do publicly, just doesn’t change the way people think about his success or failure.