In games such as golf, you win by scoring lower than any of your opponents. But in the realm of presidential job approval, such an approach is a recipe for political upheaval, as President Biden has found over the past few months. Polls continue to show his approval rating in poor shape, and even Democrats are asking questions about his political future amid broad dissatisfaction with the current state of the country.
In fact, Biden is dancing with a bleak bit of history: His approval rating of 39 percent1 is now the worst of any elected president at this point in his presidency since the end of World War II, according to FiveThirtyEight’s historical presidential approval data. In other words, Biden is arguably in worse shape than any other elected president heading into his first midterm election, including his four most recent predecessors, who, like Biden, were operating in an increasingly polarized political climate.
After entering office, most recent presidents see a decline in their approval ratings, but since Biden’s numbers peaked at 55 percent in March 2021, they have moved in only one direction: down. To some extent, President Barack Obama’s approval rating followed a similar trajectory, but he started off with better numbers than any of the other four most recent presidents and was still well above where Biden is at this point in his presidency.
By comparison, President Bill Clinton actually mounted a comeback nearly a year into his presidency before his approval fell again in the latter part of 1994. Even President Donald Trump’s low approval rating ticked back up into the low 40s in 2018 after falling to 36 percent in December 2017. And, of course, President George W. Bush topped them all when his approval jumped to a record-high 88 percent in 2001 due to a rally-around-the-flag moment shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Why is Biden’s approval so low? For starters, Americans have a really dim view of how things are going in the U.S. For instance, about 75 percent believe the country is on the wrong track according to the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls, while only 18 percent say the country is moving in the right direction. To be sure, Americans have long held negative views about the direction the country is moving in — RCP’s average hasn’t been net positive once in the past 13 years — but this is still the highest level of dissatisfaction since 2011.
Many factors are driving this overall feeling of dissatisfaction among Americans, but inflation is arguably the biggest reason. Inflation, which is at its highest point since the early 1980s, has consistently ranked as the top issue Americans are worried about in our polling with Ipsos. In the most recent FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll, 62 percent of Americans told us that inflation or increasing prices was one of the most important issues facing the country, ranking far ahead of any other topic we asked about.
Notably, too, inflation has soured Americans further on Biden’s job performance. For instance, an early June poll from Ipsos/ABC News found that only 28 percent of Americans approved of Biden’s handling of inflation; along with his handling of gas prices (27 percent approved), inflation ranked lowest of any of the issues the poll asked about. This stacks up with what’s happened to past presidents, too, as notable upticks in inflation have often coincided with sharp declines in presidential job approval. This is particularly true of rising gas prices, as studies have found that gas price increases are linked to lower presidential approval — and gas prices have soared during this period of high inflation.
Recently, the connection between economic perceptions and presidential standing hasn’t been as strong, but political scientists John Sides and Robert Griffin found that falling consumer sentiment is once again a useful indicator for understanding presidential approval, as it explains a lot of what we’re seeing with the decline in Biden’s approval.
Interestingly, that reconnection between the economy and presidential approval may be partly down to the decreasing confidence Democrats have in the state of the economy. In fact, even though Democrats are still more confident than Republicans or independents about the economy, we can see that Democrats’ opinions about economic conditions are actually worse now than at any time during Trump’s presidency, using consumer sentiment data from the University of Michigan’s Surveys of Consumers.
The upshot is that this may have weakened Democratic loyalty to Biden. Just 69 percent to 76 percent of Democrats said they approved of Biden in polls from Ipsos/Reuters, YouGov/The Economist and Morning Consult conducted in early July. This sounds high, but it’s much lower than what these pollsters found for Trump’s approval rating among Republicans during the same period in 2018, when it hovered between 84 percent and 88 percent. Of course, economic conditions were more favorable during Trump’s presidency, which may have helped keep Republicans firmly behind Trump, but regardless of party loyalty, the reality is that Biden has lost ground among pretty much every group we have numbers for, continuing a trend we first observed in October.
Back then, close to 35 percent of independents approved of Biden, a figure that’s now sunk to around 30 percent. Meanwhile, Biden’s approval among Black Americans may have fallen even more, going from the high 60s to about 60 percent; among Latino Americans, his approval has gone from around 50 percent to the low-to-mid 40s. White Americans are more Republican-leaning, so Biden had less ground to lose with them to begin with, but even still, his numbers among them have slipped from the high 30s to the mid 30s.
One other group that has soured on Biden is younger Americans, especially considering they were the most Democratic-leaning age group in 2020 (and in most recent elections). The Pew Research Center and the Cooperative Election Study suggest that around 60 percent or more of voters 18 to 29 backed Biden in 2020, yet recent polls suggest Biden’s approval among that age group has fallen into the 30s, or even lower in some surveys.
Economic dissatisfaction certainly plays into the disillusionment that young people may have of Biden, but other reports suggest that some of that frustration may also lie in their anger over the Biden administration’s limited progress on issues like climate change and canceling student debt. Looking ahead to the midterm elections, the discontent young people feel toward the president could be a real problem, as it might dampen their enthusiasm to vote — that could be bad for Democrats since young voters are already far less likely to turn out in midterms than in presidential elections.
As it currently stands, polls suggest that Republicans as a whole are more enthusiastic than Democrats about the upcoming election, although most recent surveys asking that question predate the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision establishing abortion as a constitutional right. This is an issue that could be motivating for Democrats this fall, and in fact, we’ve already seen some movement toward Democrats in our generic ballot average. It remains to be seen, though, whether that’s a short-term blip or a more long-lasting change in the electoral environment, and of course someone who is unenthusiastic can still vote — an unenthusiastic vote counts the same as an enthusiastic one.
Nevertheless, the historical relationship between presidential approval and the performance of the president’s party in midterm elections should scare Democrats. Generally speaking, the worse a president’s approval is, the more seats that party tends to lose in the House.2 Thinking back to that first chart, three of the four presidents preceding Biden saw their party lose at least 40 House seats in their first midterm election. The exception was Bush, whose party actually gained six seats in the 2002 election, but he had an unusually high approval rating at the time of his first midterm. That’s still notable, though, because it means it has taken that kind of anomaly to see the president’s party suffer fewer losses — or even achieve gains — in House elections.
We can’t know for sure where Biden’s approval will go from here, but many of the factors playing into his approval rating don’t look likely to disappear anytime soon. And that could be a major anchor weighing down Democrats this fall.
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