2022 midterms

When Life Stinks, the President’s Popularity Sinks

It’s tough to be the boss when the business isn’t doing well. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On slow news days, political gabbers and scribblers can have hours of fun unraveling the various strands of Joe Biden’s recent plunge in popularity: the Omicron-fueled resurgence of COVID-19, the return of 1970s-style inflation, and most of all, Democrats’ failure to execute their legislative agenda. But there may be a simpler explanation that encompasses these and other discontents: Americans are in a bad mood generally because they believe life sucks right now. A report from NBC News on fresh polling about the nation’s direction illustrates the problem:

Overwhelming majorities of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, that their household income is falling behind the cost of living, that political polarization will only continue and that there’s a real threat to democracy and majority rule.

What’s more, the nation’s top politicians and political parties are more unpopular than popular, and interest in the upcoming November midterms is down — not up.

Polls like this that ask whether respondents think the country is on the right track or the wrong track are part of the background noise of American politics; it often seems Americans are eternally pessimistic about the country’s future, just as they are eternally negative about the politicians they (or some of them) keep electing to office. But warranted or not, sour sentiments about the direction of the country are highly correlated with poor performance by the president’s party in the midterm elections that have almost always been a referendum on his performance in office.

According to the RealClearPolitics polling averages of right-track versus wrong-track sentiment (which is currently 26 percent right track/65 percent wrong track, making the NBC reading of 22 percent right/72 percent wrong a bit of an outlier), the ratio just prior to the last three midterms was 31/64 in 2010, 28/66 in 2014, and 40/54 in 2018. The president’s party won 45 percent in the national House vote in all three midterms. Using the longer-standing Gallup numbers dating back to 1982 (measuring “satisfaction” and “dissatisfaction” with “the way things are going in the United States at this time”), net right-track sentiment has been positive just before a midterm election exactly twice: in 1998 and 2002, which happen to be the two midterm election years since 1934 in which the president’s party gained House seats.

This all may seem like it’s circular: When life stinks, the president’s job-approval numbers are low and so is his party’s popularity. But the salient point is this: It’s usually misguided to single out one silver-bullet mistake a president is making that depresses the White House party’s midterm prospects. This may be especially true in 2022, when two of the biggest sources of unhappiness (the persistence of COVID-19 and suddenly rampant inflation) are in large part beyond any president’s control. Perhaps if Biden had somehow gotten Joe Manchin to sign off on a diminished Build Back Better package or had agitated the air more on inflation, people would feel a bit better about life — and about Biden and Democrats. But it’s just as likely that moving more forcefully on one priority would have foreclosed progress on the other (e.g., not pursuing BBB in deference to the public’s belief that higher government spending is causing inflation). And when the president’s party also controls Congress — even if that control is a bit illusory, as is the case with the Senate this year — the blame game becomes simpler and more lethal for the “governing” team.

Just as life isn’t fair, moreover, neither is politics: Problems inadequately or incompetently addressed by one administration and its party inevitably affect their successors. Putting aside everything you think Biden, Pelosi, and Schumer did right or wrong in 2021, it’s likely any political party presiding over a terrifying pandemic entering its third year would be in some trouble because life sucks. When it doesn’t, I think we will discover that whoever is running the country at that point will suddenly seem competent and maybe even strategically brilliant.

When Life Stinks, the President’s Popularity Sinks