early and often

Why Do So Many Americans Think Biden Is Doing a Bad Job?

Joe really needs to get the word out. Photo: Nathan Howard/Bloomberg via Getty Images

These days it often seems like we’re caught in a deluge of bad and worrying news on everything from artificial intelligence and UFOs to homelessness and smoke in the air. But you could argue that life has been getting better in the USA overall, as Washington Monthly’s Bill Scher did recently in examining some of the issues people, and especially Republicans, blame on President Joe Biden. He offers as an example this indictment of Hellhole America from Ron DeSantis in his candidacy announcement last month:

Our southern border [has] collapsed. Drugs are pouring into the country. Our cities are being hollowed out by spiking crime. The federal government’s making it harder for the average family to make ends meet and to attain and maintain a middle-class lifestyle … Stop pricing hardworking Americans out of a good standard of living through inflationary borrow, print, and spending policies.

Actually, notes Scher, the “inflation rate for May is down to 4 percent, less than half of the June 2022 peak.” Illegal border crossings “have dropped by 70 percent in the last few weeks, according to the Department of Homeland Security, after Biden implemented a new border-management policy.” And aside from the fact that rising crime rates during the last few years left crime much, much lower than it was in the late 20th century, any “crime wave” claims are now clearly questionable:

Murder is down about 12 percent year-to-date in more than 90 cities that have released data for 2023, compared with data as of the same date in 2022,” according to crime data analyst Jeff Asher, writing in The Atlantic, a trend that could lead to “one of the largest annual percent changes in murder ever recorded.” That follows a 4 percent drop in homicides in 2022 from the prior year, according to the Council on Criminal Justice analysis of data from 35 cities. …

Another set of promising data comes from the Violent Crime Survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which looked at data from 70 cities. During the first quarter of 2023, homicides, rapes, and robberies dropped about 8 percent from the first quarter of 2022.  

So all the dystopian talk from Republican politicians is at best anachronistic, and at worst deliberate disinformation based on reflexive partisanship, right? Well, sort of. There are some other things going on.

When you are a politician, perceptions about how things are going in the nation are just as important as the facts. Polling on Biden’s job-approval ratings on various issues help illuminate the nature of the public’s discontent.

According to the RealClearPolitics polling averages, 41 percent of Americans approval of Biden’s overall job performance, while 54.5 percent disapprove. His 13.5 percent net disapproval is at its highest level since August 2022. But the ratio is worse in surveys that look at Biden’s performance on inflation, immigration, and crime specifically (though the number of polls doing this detailed approval polling is limited). The averages show Biden at 31.3 percent approval to 64.3 percent disapproval on inflation, 32.5 percent approval to 62.3 percent disapproval on immigration, and a relatively benign 38 percent approval to 56 percent disapproval on crime. (By comparison, his average ratios are 40.8 percent approval to 53.8 percent disapproval on foreign policy, almost identical to his overall approval ratings, and a nearly above-water 45.3 percent approval to 49.7 percent disapproval on his handling of the Russia-Ukraine war.)

Do these numbers just reflect partisanship? Not really, though Republican antipathy holds all of Biden’s approval ratings down. When you look at a poll that breaks down these approval levels by partisan ID, as a June 3-6 Economist/YouGov survey did, you see that the Republican numbers are fairly flat. Ten percent of Republicans approve of Biden’s overall job performance, the same percentage that approves of what he’s doing on inflation. Eleven percent of Republicans are happy with Biden on immigration, and 15 percent on crime. There’s more variation among independents; 30 percent approve of Biden’s job approval overall, but the approval number drops to 24 percent on crime, 23 percent on inflation, and 22 percent on immigration. And the most movement is among Democrats — there, Biden approval ratings drop from 82 percent overall to 63 percent on immigration and inflation and 66 percent on crime.

It’s unlikely that Democrats and independents who are less than thrilled with Biden’s record on inflation, immigration, and crime have a negative view because they spend too much time listening to Republican talking points from politicians or Fox News. Clearly Team Biden needs to do a better job of getting the recent good news out to members of his own party and persuadable independents. But it’s also true that perceptions of where the country is on various issues can take time to change.

Most Americans do not follow monthly inflation, crime, or border-crossing statistics. They experience inflation through more expensive bills, less abundant grocery purchases, and delayed big-ticket investments; crime through if-it-bleeds-it-leads local news broadcasts and major events like mass shootings; immigration through vivid images of people in migrant camps or the frequency with which they hear foreign languages spoken in their own communities. The positive statistics Bill Scher recites need to be reflected over time in real-life experiences — and they need to persist until the moment voters decide how to vote. But pushing back when Biden haters pretend the country is going straight to hell is probably a good idea for Democrats. A swing voter might hear them.

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Why Do So Many Americans Think Biden Is Doing a Bad Job?