Democrats are worried about the slide in Joe Biden’s approval rating which began in late July and now has him underwater. There are two questions which need answering:
(1) Is this is the bottom for Biden? Or a new baseline? Or does he still have room to fall?
(2) How much does a president’s approval rating matter?
Let’s first talk about the job approval question itself. Gallup has been polling Americans on presidential job approval for over 80 years, and the question is, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way [president’s name] is handling his job as president?” The choices are simple: approve, disapprove, or no opinion.
As Gallup has receded from public opinion polling and moved more into workplace optimization, Pew Research Center has filled the gap. (Andrew Kohut founded the venerable center, was a former president of Gallup.) To this day Pew uses the same wording for the question, but instead of “no opinion” they track “no answer”—meaning that Pew does not allow respondents equivalent of a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
This standard varies quite a bit and, but nitpicky professional preferences aside, it’s a question we all agree is important, and it is clear that presidents with high approval ratings get more of what they want from their policy agenda, independent of executive orders.
Thanks to our friends at FiveThirtyEight, we have a good sense of the historical patterns. Biden began his presidency with a net +20 percent job approval rating, which is low for the modern era.
Among the last seven presidencies, Jimmy Carter’s opening net approval rating was +58 percent, Ronald Reagan’s was +38 percent, George H.W. Bush’s +50 percent, Bill Clinton’s was +36 percent, George W. Bush’s was 32 percent, and Barack Obama’s was +41 percent. Donald Trump’s was +2 percent net positive.
It’s important to note that while the 2020 election was extremely contentious and went to, shall we say, overtime, so did George W. Bush’s election in 2000 and his net approval rating was 12 points higher than Biden’s. And Bill Clinton won a much smaller percentage of the vote in 1996—a plurality, not a majority—yet his opening net approval was 16 points better than Biden’s.
The interesting question here is whether there’s a single modern era, or if 2016 marked the start of something new. Donald Trump’s opening approval rating was net 18 points worse than Biden’s, despite them having won the same number of Electoral College votes.
But let’s set Trump aside for a moment and focus on what comes after inauguration.
Every president in this group was worse off at Day 232 than on Day 1. Good vibes wear off, history intervenes, and honeymoons end for everyone.
In Biden’s case, early celebrations of vaccine efficacy and adoption led to revised CDC guidance saying we could ditch our masks two weeks after a second shot. But the Delta variant and continuing worries about inflation and unauthorized border crossings zeroed out that good news, continuing the natural decline. The chaotic end to the war in Afghanistan dropped Biden into negative job approval territory, which now stands at -4 percent.
If we fast-forward to the end of Biden’s first term, what might we expect?
Americans have reelected four of their last seven presidents, but none ended their first term with a better job approval rating than when they started. In 1984, Ronald Reagan was reelected in a 49-state landslide but had still lost points from his inaugural approval rating. Presidents Obama (-33 points), George W. Bush (-27 points), and Bill Clinton (-7 points) each won reelection but with lower job approvals.
Of the three presidents who did not win reelection, Trump actually lost the least from Day 1 to Day 1,458 (-17 points). But of course, he started from the lowest baseline.
George H. W. Bush started with a net +50 percent and lost almost 32 points along the way to his last day in office. And Jimmy Carter lost an astounding 71 points, going from +58 to -21.
In sum, presidents cannot expect to recover their initial job approval rating at the end of four years, even if they win a second term with a majority or a supermajority of Americans voting for them.
If you’re the political director for President Biden, the optimistic view is that initial job approval ratings are meaningless indicators of performance that has not yet happened. You might argue that while we need baselines, asking the question on Day 1 for Joe Biden was even less of an apples-to-apples comparison from other presidents due to the lack of a peaceful transition of power or even a concession from his opponent.
But if you’re working for the Trump GOP, you’re relieved because for a little while there it was hard to attack Biden. Now, there’s a menu of issues from which to choose where the GOP has natural advantages and Biden’s underwater job approval ratings reduce any fear they might have that attacking him could backfire.
It’s also opening the door for an “I told you so” reboot campaign from Trump himself.
Projecting the Future
Where can Biden expect to go from here? There’s no perfect pattern, but Biden has probably hit rock bottom. He’s down almost 10 percent from his Day 1 rating and that seems to be close to about right in this polarized age.
Let’s look at the upper and lower bounds here:
Donald Trump flatlined through his four years after Day 20, with his job approval rating never cracking the 50 percent mark. Trump “peaked” at 45 percent, which is where Biden is now; but Trump never went below 37 percent. So that’s what floors look like in the current environment.
As for the best-case scenario for Biden: Obama’s first term approval number after one year bounced around between 43 percent and 54 percent.
Events can influence job approval numbers. Both Bush first terms occurred during times of war, so their job approval spikes should be viewed within that context. And Carter’s ill-fated effort to rescue the Iranian hostages caused a spike in his job approval, which fell sharply as the crisis continued.
But absent a black swan event, the path back might be a reevaluation of how Biden approaches his job. Clinton’s and Reagan’s slides occurred until both lost control of one or both chambers of Congress, prompting both to rethink their approach to governing. Both reclaimed much of their post-one-year slides in the runup to reelection.
Resetting the Baseline
What would taking a different posture towards the job look like for Biden? Bringing the last Americans home from Afghanistan would be a positive step. A smooth rollout of the bipartisan infrastructure agreement could help. Working with Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema on a reconciliation compromise south of $3.5 trillion is another piece of the puzzle Biden can control.
On things the president cannot directly control—including the demand side of the immigration equation and rising prices due to pandemic supply chain issues—Biden has to find ways to show he’s working on the problems. The administration would also be wise to show bipartisanship cooperation on vaccines by coordinating communications with the handful of like-minded, high-profile Republicans who are not running shadow campaigns for president.
None of these by themselves will move the needle very much, but taken together they add up. Based on the historical trends, in the best-case scenario Biden could expect to recover between 5 points and 7 points of his approval rating over the remaining three-plus years he has in his term. And the best way for Biden to do it is to pivot back to the middle.
But if Biden doesn’t want to face an emboldened Trump GOP 2024, he will have to reset his presidency before the coming midterm loss.