Once, while sitting in bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic in Atlanta, I espied a bumper sticker on an exhaust-belching truck immediately in front of my car that made me laugh and fume simultaneously: “I may be slow, but I’m ahead of you!”
That is a taunt that fans of President Joe Biden have been able to launch at fans of former president Donald Trump … until recently. It was definitely accurate back in January, as I noted at the time:
There is a definite silver lining to Biden’s current popularity woes, reflected in this ostensibly very negative headline at FiveThirtyEight: “One Year in, Biden Has the Second-Lowest Approval Rating of Any President.” Guess who had the very lowest at this point in his presidency? That’s right: Donald J. Trump, whose approval rating was at 39 percent a year after his inauguration.
My point was that while Biden’s job-approval numbers were in no shape to give Democrats much of a hope of hanging on to control of the House in November, the losses might be limited by Trump’s chronic unpopularity as long as he was the perceived leader of the GOP. In 2024, moreover, Biden may well be a viable candidate for reelection even if his party bombs in 2022, much like Obama in 2012 and Trump himself (very nearly) in 2020.
But now the premise of this partly sunny analysis of Biden’s relative unpopularity has changed. At this point in 2018, Trump’s average job-approval rating at RealClearPolitics was 43.2 percent. Biden’s today is at 38.2 percent, five full points lower. When Election Day arrived in 2018, Trump’s job-approval rating was virtually unchanged, and his party lost 41 House seats, though thanks to an extremely favorable Senate landscape, the GOP made a net gain of two seats in the upper chamber. It’s possible, of course, that Biden’s popularity may rebound by November, but his job-approval rating hasn’t been above 43 percent this year, and the overall trend is an excruciatingly slow but steady erosion of support.
After the Supreme Court abolished the constitutional right to an abortion on June 24, political analysts were alert to a possible bump in Democratic support in the generic congressional ballot (the measure other than presidential job approval most highly correlated to midterm results). But nobody is talking about a parallel bump for Biden. At present, it seems that if the abortion issue does help Democrats mitigate a GOP wave in November, it will be despite, not because of, presidential popularity. And that does not bode well for his reelection prospects.
Numbers aside, being less popular than Trump among the general electorate is bad for any Democratic leader. We all understand, of course, that the key reason for the significant and growing popularity gap between Trump in 2018 and Biden in 2022 is the condition of the economy, for which neither president necessarily deserves a lot of credit or blame given the very unusual situation we have endured in recent years. Maybe if the House committee investigating January 6 unearths additional damning evidence of Trump’s culpability for a near-lethal attack on democracy, the 45th president’s popularity will sink far below the 46th president’s going forward. But the same phenomenon (particularly if it leads to criminal charges) could lead Republicans to find themselves a less problematic but equally dangerous presidential candidate in 2024. In any event, Biden needs to raise his game, and soon.