Comment: Why Biden might take some heart in his poll numbers

Policy still matters to people; better news on covid and inflation could boost his approval rating.

By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion

President Biden ended the weekend with his approval rating at 42.3 percent, according to the polling average at FiveThirtyEight, slightly up from 41.9 percent on Jan. 20, when he marked one year in office with his lowest-yet number.

It’s the second-lowest rating at that point ever, just a bit better than Donald Trump’s 39.1 percent. Only Gerald Ford at 43.5 percent, Ronald Reagan (48.9 percent), Barack Obama (49.9 percent) and Harry Truman (50 percent) were even within 10 points of Biden’s figure through 369 days.

That’s not good.

Of course, Reagan, Truman and Obama all won re-election, while Jimmy Carter (who was at 55 percent on Jan. 20, 1977) and George H.W. Bush (78.3 percent!) were defeated, so Biden’s unpopularity now tells us nothing about what will happen if he runs in 2024.

And there’s plenty of time: Reagan slumped all the way down to 35.3 percent early in 1983 before winning 49 states in a landslide victory in 1984. On the other hand, Reagan, Truman and Obama all had their parties get clobbered in their first midterms, so that’s not a good sign for Democrats.

Although it’s hard to say exactly why Biden has become unpopular, and there are a lot of theories out there, his numbers over time are certainly consistent with the rise and fall of the coronavirus. His approval rating began declining soon after the delta wave began, flattened out or perhaps recovered a bit when that wave ebbed, and then dropped again when omicron took hold. That’s consistent with a comparative perspective, which might note that Biden is one of several world leaders who isn’t very popular right now. It also wouldn’t be surprising if the effects of the pandemic recession and recovery, including high inflation, contributed to Biden’s slump.

It’s a lot less likely that legislative strategy has much to do with it, as too few people pay close enough attention for that to matter. As for ideological positioning? It just hasn’t changed enough from the first six months of the administration to be driving changes in popularity.

Generally, the best explanation is the simplest one: People are in a pretty grumpy mood as the second year of the pandemic ends with record-high case counts and various other negative effects — including inflation — and they’re taking it out on the president.

We may get a reasonable test of this explanation in the spring. If the omicron wave ebbs and we get a few months similar to March through June last year; if inflation turns out to have peaked at the end of 2021; and if no new major negative news story emerges, then we’ll see whether Biden’s popularity rebounds a fair amount by, say, June. That said, I wouldn’t expect a full recovery for a while even if conditions do get better, if only because the virus has dashed people’s hopes so many times. What all this suggests is that there’s only a very loose connection between the president’s actions and public opinion.

Biden benefited last spring and summer from a seeming return to normal that at best he was only partly responsible for; he slumped in the fall despite continuing the same policies; and he may recover without fundamentally changing course at all. Political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels set out the evidence for that loose connection in “Democracy for Realists” and concluded that politicians have little incentive to make good public policy. I think that’s wrong; as long as voters respond positively to good news and poorly to bad news — even if that news may have little or nothing to do with public policy — politicians should still have a strong incentive to try to produce outcomes people like.

That’s why I continue to take the correlation between the strength of the pandemic and Biden’s approval rating as good news after two presidencies in which approval ratings were unusually static. Biden’s 13 percentage-point approval range is already larger than Trump’s was over his entire four years. It’s not yet as large as Obama’s overall, but it is larger than Obama’s range from the beginning of his second year through well into his eighth year. I suspect Obama’s narrow range during most of his presidency was caused by the unusual condition of a slow but steady recovery from the recession he inherited: Events just never seemed to drive his approval strongly in either direction.

As for Trump, my guess is that he really was an unusual case of a president who permanently alienated over half the nation in his initial campaign and never really attempted to win them back. That put a cap on his popularity even during what people perceived as good times. In other words, all those things he did and said — the things that pundits often said would’ve destroyed other politicians — really did have significant negative effects.

If it was really true, as some suggest, that Obama’s and Trump’s unchanging approval ratings were caused by partisan polarization, then there really would be no reason for presidents (or other politicians) to try to make voters happy. They could ignore everyone but their strongest supporters, or even just govern for their own benefit, without risk. Biden’s slump could well show that voters still hold the president accountable; and that future presidents may still have an incentive to pursue good policies.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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