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Biden Is Trump (When It Comes to Popularity)

So different, but similar in public-opinion ratings. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

After looking at public-opinion research, the White House has reportedly decided that the administration and its allies haven’t done enough to publicize President Biden’s accomplishments in his first two years on the job. The president himself will get a chance to tout his wins Tuesday night in his State of the Union address. Then, the White House hopes, we’ll see fewer discouraging headlines like this one in the Washington Post: “Americans not feeling impact of Biden agenda, Post-ABC poll finds”:

The poll finds that 62 percent of Americans think Biden has accomplished “not very much” or “little or nothing” during his presidency, while 36 percent say he has accomplished “a great deal” or “a good amount.” On many of Biden’s signature initiatives — from improving the country’s infrastructure to making electric vehicles more affordable to creating jobs — majorities of Americans say they do not believe he has made progress, the poll finds.

Maybe the relatively low-key 46th president really does need to do more bragging and spinning. But there may be something less personal fueling Biden’s meh job-approval ratings: partisan polarization and independents’ estrangement from politics. These days, it’s difficult for any president to draw huge approval ratings absent boffo external events (and apparently shooting down a Chinese spy balloon does not qualify). While it could be just a coincidence, Biden is in a public-opinion slough that looks similar to what his wildly different (and certainly more volatile) predecessor, Donald Trump, was experiencing at the same point in his presidency.

Biden’s job-approval rating for the month of January was 41 percent, according to Gallup. Trump’s was 37 percent in January 2019; the slight lag might be attributable to that month’s lengthy government shutdown, for which Trump bore much of the blame. In February 2019, Trump’s approval rating bounced back up to 43 percent. Trump’s average approval rating for his entire presidency was 41 percent. Biden and Trump’s comparative ratings have been quite similar overall since the Democrat’s honeymoon period wore off in autumn 2021.

If you look at the internals behind these numbers, there’s a pattern that helps explain why such different presidents, dealing with wildly dissimilar political circumstances, would wind up with similar levels of popularity. Basically, partisans love their own presidents and hate the opposing party’s leader, while independents hate pretty much everybody. At present (again per Gallup), Biden’s approval rating among self-identified Democrats is 81 percent; among self-identified Republicans, it’s four percent, and among self-identified independents, it’s 36 percent. Trump at this point in his presidency won approval from 82 percent of Republicans, 5 percent of Democrats, and 31 percent of independents. By the end of February 2019, once the government shutdown had ended, Trump’s approval rating among independents was back up to 36 percent, identical to Biden’s today.

A closer look at those generally sour independents reveals that the vast majority (81 percent, according to Pew) are more properly described as “leaners” toward one of the two major parties. These voters are less likely to feel affection for the party they lean toward than stone partisans, but in terms of voting behavior, they are pretty consistent. The “true” independents tend to be younger, less engaged with and informed about politics, and pretty negative about the government and both parties. In fact, recent polling on the direction of the country has been remarkably negative, regardless of who’s president, largely because of independents. According to RealClearPolitics, the last time poll respondents were evenly divided on whether the country was headed in the right or wrong direction was June 2009. Since then, partisans have usually been relatively happy with the direction of the country when their party controls the White House and bitterly unhappy when it doesn’t, while independents are almost uniformly unhappy.

A Morning Consult tracking poll on perceptions of how the country was doing during the Trump and Biden administrations shows some temporary variations. But at this point in 2019, the right track–wrong track ratio was 32-68; now it’s 29-71. Twenty-eight percent of independents felt positive about the direction of the country four years ago; 23 percent feel so right now.

What does this mean for Biden? It suggests public opinion of his job performance is a lot more rigid than you might think from reading the news. If Republicans are totally unpersuadable and independents are sour and tuned out, then the persuadable audience for a State of the Union bragging session is very limited.

If Biden is reelected, it will likely be due to a small number of partisan and independent swing voters deciding he’s the lesser of two evils (which is arguably how he won his narrow victory in 2020). If conditions in the country are still ambiguous in November 2024 rather than undeniably positive or negative, then the Electoral College vote will likely be quite close once again.

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Biden Is Trump (When It Comes to Popularity)