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Biden’s on a Roll. So When Will He Become Popular Again?

Are happy days really here again for Biden and Democrats? Photo: Ronen.Zvulun/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

For an old guy like Joe Biden, August 2022 must feel like a dip in the fountain of youth. The president has just had, according to my colleague Jonathan Chait, his “best week ever:”

Biden has salvaged his domestic-policy agenda, his party’s base has snapped out of its torpor, and the economy is showing signs it just might pull through. And while not all these developments are his own doing, nor do they completely extinguish the political danger he faces, they all redound to his benefit. In the span of a few weeks, Biden’s presidency is back from the dead and looking something close to triumphant.

Without question, his party’s midterm prospects – which looked absolutely horrendous in June — have improved significantly, for the moment at least. Democrats have drawn even in the generic congressional ballot, the best yardstick we have for how people will vote in a midterm election. The Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter writes of a “summer breeze” for Democrats that has offset the earlier storm warnings. Nate Silver is contemplating the possibility (by no means a probability, at least at this point) that 2022 could become an “asterisk election,” the rare midterm in which the party controlling the White House does not lose ground. It’s easy to look at the tea leaves from the primary season — the powerful abortion backlash evidenced in Kansas, the overperformance by Democrats in special congressional elections in Nebraska and Minnesota, and the proliferation of clownish Republican Senate nominees — as positive signs for the president’s party. As well as the surprisingly robust burst of productivity the Democratic-controlled Congress has put together, there are signs Biden’s biggest and most uncontrollable problem, inflation, is abating somewhat.

And on top of everything else, in the wake of the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago, the once overpoweringly confident opposition party is embracing Donald Trump like a malodorous teddy bear, even though its leaders know that risks changing the midterms from a “referendum” to a “choice” election, which it will struggle to win.

There’s just one key ingredient missing from this suddenly sunny climate for Democrats: Joe Biden remains by every measure an unpopular president, and an unpopular president’s party has never had one of those “asterisk” midterms in which it makes gains or holds serve.

To be sure, there has been recent, painfully slow improvement in the president’s average job-approval numbers: He has reached 40 percent approval (along with 55 percent disapproval) at both FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics for the first time since June, having consistently hit new lows in mid-July. Best we can tell, at this preliminary point, it’s probably Democrats getting over their earlier disappointment with Biden’s legislative accomplishments who are now giving him a bit of a lift in popularity. This may be a sign that we should revise the expectation of a big “enthusiasm gap” affecting partisan turnout patterns in November.

But let’s be clear: Joe Biden has a long way to go to emerge above water in popularity, a position he last held nearly a year ago. And there just isn’t any precedent for a chief executive with underwater approval ratios escaping midterm misery. In the three “asterisk” elections Nate Silver wrote about, the president’s job approval ratings just prior to Election Day were 61 percent (John F. Kennedy, 1962), 65 percent (Bill Clinton, 1998) and 67 percent (George W. Bush, 2002).

Perhaps Biden’s popularity will continue to slowly rise as word spreads of the contents of the Inflation Reduction Act and other recently enacted legislation, or if inflation continues to decline, or if it turns out Trump was hiding something indefensible at Mar-a-Lago and Republicans cannot stop themselves from defending him with the shrill tone of addicts denied a fix. The one thing we can say for now is that the talk among Democrats of unceremoniously dumping Biden in 2024 will, for the time being, subside. But we will have to wait until two red-letter days in November — the midterms on November 8 and the president’s 80th birthday on November 20 – to find out if it will resume. Biden needs a good season, not just a good week, before we can conclude happy days are here again for him and his party.

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Biden’s on a Roll. So When Will He Become Popular Again?