It’s not at all clear how much the brouhaha over the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will matter in terms of the 2022 or 2024 elections, or even exactly how much it is contributing to increasingly sour public and media perceptions of Joe Biden. But there’s not much question that the intense glare of publicity over the president’s management of the situation in Kabul has eroded his previously amazing ability to lurk in the background, seemingly protected from Republican attacks, even when his policies aroused controversy. So what we may now be seeing in his job approval ratings are how well Biden fares when the eyes of the nation are riveted on his every action.
Given how Americans are feeling about current conditions in the country (at RealClearPolitics the right track/wrong track polling averages have eroded from 44-50 in May to 30-60 now), it’s not that surprising that Biden’s job-approval ratio is now underwater for the first time (47 percent approve to 49 percent disapprove in the straightforward RCP averages and 46.7 percent approve to 47.2 percent disapprove at FiveThirtyEight, which adjusts polls for partisan bias, and weighs them for reliability).
An analysis of their own numbers showing Biden underwater from Morning Consult attributed much of the slide to a 6 percent drop in his net approval rating among self-identified independents since August 14. They also showed movement among partisans, though mostly in terms of intensity: “Strong approval” of Biden among Democrats dropped six points since August 14, while “strong disapproval” among Republicans rose seven points in the same period.
As I noted in an earlier post, reaction to adverse overseas developments can fade pretty quickly, as occurred soon after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, when Gerald Ford’s approval rating rose significantly as soon as the Mayaguez incident (in which the U.S. freed merchant sailors captured by the Khmer Rouge off the Cambodian coast) replaced the Vietnam collapse in the news.
Whatever it portends, Biden’s plunge underwater is hardly unique. According to a UC Santa Barbara analysis of Gallup data, every president dating back to Lyndon Johnson had net-negative approval ratings at some point. (John F. Kennedy’s abbreviated presidency was very unusual; his lowest monthly Gallup approval rating was 56 percent, not long before his assassination. His Republican predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was also blessed with consistent popularity.)
The most relevant points of comparison to Biden should comfort him. Barack Obama was regularly underwater in weekly Gallup surveys nearly all of 2010, in the first half of 2011, and throughout 2014. But he managed to serve two full terms. And Donald Trump didn’t achieve his first net-positive Gallup approval rating until the spring of 2020, and came close to getting reelected despite a 46-52 Gallup rating on the eve of the 2020 election.
So there’s no reason for Team Biden to freak out, unless congressional Democrats become frightened and cannot sustain their remarkable degree of unity this year long enough to enact the combo platter of infrastructure and budget-reconciliation legislation that contains much of Biden’s agenda. But while you never know what lies ahead these days, the odds continue to diminish that the 46th president is going to be popular enough (and he would need to be very popular to defy midterm history) to lift his party to victory in the 2022 elections.