In the midst of a meditation on “Bidenism,” if there is any such thing, Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon Jr. offered this provocative thought: “Ultimately, I wonder whether we have simply entered an era in which presidents are always going to be unpopular.”
It really is worth thinking about. Joe Biden had a brief period of relative popularity for the first few months of his presidency, but his job-approval rating went underwater last summer and seems to have stabilized in the low 40s. Donald Trump never reached 46 percent in his job-approval ratings, according to the FiveThirtyEight averages, and for the most part stayed about where Biden is today. Barack Obama struggled to stay popular even though he took office in 2008 with what looked like a strong popular mandate. According to Gallup (the best source for comparing presidential approval ratings over time), from March 2010 until March 2016, Obama’s approval rating was regularly below 50 percent, except for a brief season of relative popularity felicitously centered on the 2012 elections. His average Gallup approval rating was 47.9 percent, the lowest since Jimmy Carter’s presidency. George W. Bush’s average rating was just a bit higher at 49.7 percent, though that’s misleading; the insane spike in approval he got immediately after 9/11 (reaching 90 percent) skewed his numbers.
So in the 21st century, presidents have indeed not been very popular compared with their late-20th-century predecessors. Gallup averages show Bill Clinton at 55.1 percent, George H.W. Bush at 60.9 percent, and Ronald Reagan at 52.8 percent.
Why are presidents becoming more unpopular? Polarization is one obvious factor; partisans increasingly dislike opposing-party presidents regardless of who they are or what they actually do in office. But as Bacon points out, presidents like Biden (and Trump and, arguably, Obama and George W. Bush) also suffered from intraparty rifts:
The parties are increasingly divided internally. So the wing of the party that lost the primary — for the Democrats today, that’s younger and more progressive voters — might never be fully satisfied with a president from the same party but opposite wing.
There is a silver lining to that particular problem. Partisans who aren’t happy with their party’s president may still vote for their team in a midterm:
Biden’s support has plunged among all demographic groups, including Democrats, Black voters and voters under 40. But those three groups in particular don’t include a lot of conservatives. It is possible that many voters who are lukewarm about Biden will ultimately still vote Democratic.
And, for that matter, they may vote for Biden in 2024 if he runs again, especially if his opponent is Trump or some other MAGA demagogue like Ron DeSantis. Trump punched above his favorability numbers against the marginally less unpopular Hillary Clinton in 2016 and modestly overperformed his approval ratings in 2020.
But there’s another anchor dragging down presidential popularity: Self-identified independents have regularly disliked both Trump and Biden more than the public at large has. As long as they are (relatively speaking) disengaged from politics and mistrustful toward politicians, independents may rarely if ever find a president they can wholeheartedly favor, even if conditions in the country are sunny.
And if conditions are perceived as cloudy to stormy, as they are right now (despite low unemployment, high economic growth, and a world in which American troops are not — thus far — deeply entangled in a foreign war), no president is going to be surfing a wave of high approval. There may be, as Bacon notes, specific things about Biden that have disappointed some Democrats and a lot of independents while enraging Republicans. But in general, being unpopular could now just be a part of the job.
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