For the first five months of Joe Biden’s presidency, his job-approval ratings were amazingly stable. As CNN’s Harry Enten put it in late May after a crazy stretch of news, “It’s almost as if no event seems to really change public opinion.”
We didn’t know this at the time, but the president’s approval ratings were peaking and beginning to drift downward just as Enten was writing. This week, his approval averages at both FiveThirtyEight (which uses weighted and adjusted numbers) and RealClearPolitics (which uses raw averages) slipped just below 50 percent.
Now, Republicans will claim Biden is massively losing popularity because of (depending on the day and who’s doing the spinning) the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, inflation fears, reaction to his COVID-19 policies, or the socialism implicit in his budget. Truth is, some of the polls in these averages were taken before the drama broke out in Kabul, and averages are just averages: In the past week, Biden’s approval ratings have ranged from 45 percent (Rasmussen) to 53 percent (Fox News). And while there is a downward drift, it’s hardly precipitous, and Biden’s lowest average is still higher than Trump’s highest over his four years in office. There is, moreover, thanks to steadily increasing partisan polarization, a pretty firm ceiling and floor on any president’s approval numbers these days.
Still, as FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley points out, Biden has been slowly but surely losing ground with self-identified independents, and the trend cannot be strictly attributed to jitters associated with the Delta variant:
Biden’s ratings among independents have fallen in recent weeks — a sample of polls conducted since early July by Morning Consult, The Economist/YouGov and Ipsos suggests Biden’s approval with this group has fallen by an average of 2 to 4 percentage points in recent weeks. But Biden had already been slowly losing ground among independents. For instance, Biden’s approval among independent voters in Morning Consult’s polling has trended downward since he took office, from around the low 50s to the low 40s. That’s a very slow descent over the past eight months, but it’s also a trend that predates the surge in American cases of the Delta variant.
It’s also worth noting that Biden’s disapproval rating has gone up a bit more than his favorability rating has gone down. His average disapproval number at RCP was at 41.3 percent in late May; it’s at 46.8 percent now.
It’s too early to make any judgments about Biden’s odds for reelection in 2024, assuming he runs. But it’s not too early to begin to speculate about the 2022 midterms, in which Democrats will be fighting to hold on to a tie in the Senate (which gives them control thanks to the tie-breaking vote of Vice-President Kamala Harris) and a three-seat margin in the House. Only twice since World War II has the president’s party gained House seats in a midterm election. In both cases, the president in question (Bill Clinton in 1998 and George W. Bush in 2002) had a Gallup approval rating over 60 percent just prior to the vote. Two other presidents with 60-plus approval ratings lost House seats (Kennedy in 1962 and Reagan in 1986), while four other presidents with approval ratings in the 50s (Eisenhower in 1954 and 1958, Nixon in 1970, Ford in 1974, and Poppy Bush in 1990) lost even more House seats.
Given both polarization and the trickiness of today’s issue environment, which has been made insanely unpredictable by COVID, it’s not a very good bet that Biden will get the kind of approval bump he would need to put him in the territory of past midterm winners. Maybe he’ll be smart and lucky, and maybe the opposition (thanks to its identification with a 45th president who will not go away) will help Biden make 2022 the rare midterm that isn’t a referendum on the sitting president. But all in all, the 46th president and his allies should probably stop worrying about his approval ratings and just get as much done as they possibly can while they still control Congress.