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The Permanent Unpopularity of the American President
A president struggling around 40% isn't a Biden problem. It's the new normal.
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You might’ve heard Joe Biden’s having a rough summer.
Actually, he’s lumbered through 11 straight months of unpleasantry.
After excising the most polarizing president in history from the White House, it took the 46th president only seven months for a plurality of Americans to sour on him.
Aug. 31, 2021 is marked by the data-crunching site FiveThirtyEight as the precise day Biden fell under water. You can see the the trajectory since; it’s only gotten worse.
Monmouth University released a poll of 978 adults on Tuesday. It found that just over a third — 36% — approve of Biden’s work in the White House.
Biden’s dip into negative territory late last summer came after what was widely seen as a calamitous — if not overdue — exit from Afghanistan. Then came the fall’s rippling supply shortages coupled with gradually rising prices for goods and services.
2022 rung in with the highest rate of inflation in 40 years. Then Vladimir Putin brazenly invaded Ukraine, foisting an international crisis on the top of Biden’s agenda that further sidelined his wilting domestic wish list.
Gas prices — the most glaringly daily visible sign of economic hardship — continued to climb through the spring and into the summer. “Bidenflation” became an easy, catchy nomenclature for critics. And just as the nation crawled out of the blur of a 2-year pandemic, it was greeted with an explosion of violent crime, from the streets in Chicago to a grocery store in upstate New York, an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas and a 4th of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois.
This, all as a Supreme Court stacked by Donald Trump issued a series of weighty rulings that deemed it easier to purchase and carry a gun than to end a pregnancy, demoralizing a Democratic Party that thought it controlled Washington.
In the nation’s capital, which Biden carried with 93% of the vote in 2020, “Fuck Trump” graffiti remains, but “Fuck Biden” artwork is now increasingly visible on city buildings.
Biden’s stuck in a rut, with weekly questions about his age, lucidity, stamina and vision.
Is there much reason to think it’ll get better?
No, but there’s little reason to think many others who want his job would be in substantially better shape than he is.
An unloved American president is not unprecedented.
In fact, living with an unpopular president is likely the new normal in what’s come to be a permanent age of upheaval and anxiety. We increasingly elect our leaders out of anger, selecting “the least worst” option and then turning on them, even for things largely out of any single person’s control.
If Trump was still president, is there a case that things would be better? I’m sure there are MAGA-fied Republicans who fervently believe so. Maybe Putin doesn’t march into Ukraine. Maybe restrained federal relief spending tempers spiking costs. Maybe a psychopathic teenager decides not to climb to the roof of a building and pick off innocent people with a rifle in broad daylight.
It’s more likely that Trump would sit right around Biden’s unpopularity marker, given all the unbalanced personal intangibles he would’ve brought (and can still bring) to a second term.
Since August of 2021 is the month that persuadable Americans began to give up on Biden, it’s instructive to look back at where Trump was in August of 2017.
You probably guessed what was coming; the public was long done.
Trump was even slightly more unpopular than Biden at the same exact time in his presidency, sitting between 34% and 37%, depending on which poll you pick.
Trump is now viewed positively by only 37 percent of Americans, according to Gallup’s most recent weekly estimate. (Obama’s lowest weekly average never fell below 40 percent.) It’s even lower — just 34 percent — in Gallup’s shorter, three-day average, which includes more recent interviews but can also involve more random variation.
At 34 percent, his current approval rating is worse than former President Barack Obama’s ever was.
Even in the 2010 midterms when the Democrats took a thrashing, Obama maintained an approval rating of 46%, an enviable number for any president in the age of media silos and immovable opinions. It took Obama until the middle of his second term — in the fall of 2014 — to fall to his lowest point, which was a 40% approval rating. And our politics have become more hardened, calcified and cynical in the ensuing eight years it makes me wonder if the serene 44th president could overcome the turbulence of the 2020s.
Which is to say, having unpopular presidents — and kicking them around, is the new normal and should be expected.
Look into the future and it’s hard to see the next president nearing 50% approval for a period longer than six months, considering the most likely options available to us.
If Biden runs again and wins, he may earn a second round of goodwill in early 2025. But 50%? He’ll be lucky to swim in the mid-40s as Democrats continue to privately fret about the vitality necessary to finish a second term in his 80s.
Let’s say Trump runs, and defeats Biden. If he accomplishes the task, it will have been such an ugly fight that his grievance-fueled backward-looking campaign will leave him underwater right as he walks back into the Oval Office and re-installs his Diet Coke button.
Remember that 40-43% was a good number for Trump throughout his tenure. Trump can win a Round 2, but he’ll be bound to the basement of unpopularity.
Vice President Kamala Harris? She’s stuck at 41%, 11 points underwater in a role that is more symbolic than substance. But Harris’ has struggled to even get rudimentary tasks right, fumbling through answers and leaving the impression she’s out of her depths.
Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who would be the freshest face with the best shot at flourishing start for the red team, would have to soften his personal edges to sustain anything beyond a multi-month honeymoon. A start over 50% in January 2025 is completely imaginable for DeSantis, but not for any longer than Biden.
Pete Buttigieg is perhaps the most natural politician available for Americans to want to love. Young, brainy and quick-on-his-feet, Buttigieg might attempt to restore the Obama-like spirit that made people want to feel good about their future and reach out to their political antithesis.
But given his own moderate temperament, it’s also easy to see how the same liberal contingent who are unenthusiastic about Biden become resentful of Buttigieg simply for his all-too-neatly planned raw ambition.
Americans are impatient, fickle and selfish. Barring a cataclysmic event or monumental realignment of our politics, the first summer is where a president’s approval ratings go to die. About half the country will likely be against you from the start; begin making tough policy choices and you slowly but surely shed batches of your own team.
40% is the new normal for our president.
Biden’s biggest problem is he’s submerged even under that threshold.
But don’t let it fool you into thinking he can’t win again. He can slink back up into the unimpressive 40s, where we like to keep our chief executives. Besides, Americans stand at the ready to hate the next guy or girl in line.