By: Elishama Marmon  | 

Biden’s Approval Tailspin and What Can be Done

President Biden is in serious trouble. Recent approval polls show that the American people are losing faith in him, his agenda and his party, and it’s only getting worse. If Biden and his team want to pull their approval ratings out of the red, they have to start focusing on what Americans care about. However, it seems unlikely given Biden’s own statements that he will make this critical shift, the absence of which will doubtlessly spell catastrophe for the Democratic Party and their agenda in the midterm elections.

First, a look at the polls: A recent Quinnipiac poll put Biden at only a 33% approval rate, and while that is an outlier, his FiveThirtyEight polling average is at 41.7%, a continuation of a consistent downward trend during his entire presidency. It’s particularly shocking given that only a year ago he was polling at 55%. The Democratic party is now polling at only 42% to Republicans’ 47% (in party identification), numbers that we haven’t seen for at least 20 years.

Clearly, Americans are unhappy with Biden’s performance over the last year. And the reasons for this disappointment are numerous. Inflation, one of the public’s top priorities, rose at an annual rate of 7% this December, the highest since 1982. 70% of Americans disapprove of Biden’s handling of inflation.

COVID-19 persists, hitting an unprecedented million in cases on Jan. 3, 2022. Biden ran on promises that solving the issue of COVID-19 was simple with a steady hand on the tiller, claiming that he could “shut down the virus.” However, despite the current vaccination rate being over 80% of eligible Americans, including 95% for the critical category of Americans over 65, the country is still not back to normal. As I write this, it’s been a year since the start of Biden’s “hundred days of masking,” and the Biden administration just recommended that people start wearing N95s, finally acknowledging the reality that cloth masks were never effective against COVID-19 but also refusing to drop recommendations to mask. 36% of Americans think Biden has handled COVID badly, and even as fewer people see COVID as a top priority, they blame Biden for bad COVID policies.

On foreign policy, things aren’t any better for Biden. After a disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, his approval rating dropped below 50% for the first time. Biden has also repeatedly bungled the growing crisis in Ukraine. We are potentially days away from a large-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia caused at least in part by Biden’s projection of weakness with the Afghanistan withdrawal and the concession to Russia of allowing them to build Nord Stream 2, a pipeline intended to bring Russian oil to Germany, bypassing Ukraine by going underwater. The Biden administration actually lobbied the Senate to reject a bill designed to reimpose sanctions on the pipeline. At a recent press conference, Biden made things even worse, appearing to greenlight a “minor invasion” of Ukraine, which naturally horrified Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky who said that “there are no minor incursions.” Furthermore, Biden exposed differences of opinion within NATO about how to respond to varying levels of Russian aggression, mentioning that sanctions on Russia would hurt NATO economically. He also threatened, as his coup d'etat, to levy sanctions like “[Putin]'s never seen” on Moscow, but only after Putin invades Ukraine, implying that the response to anything less than a full-scale invasion would be less severe. Here, too, Biden has truly dropped the ball on his foreign policy, and people are noticing.

If the president and his administration get out of this tailspin, they have to start listening to what the people are saying. People’s actual priorities diverge significantly from Biden’s, and the solution is simple. Change your legislative priorities. 63% of people said that their opinion of Biden would improve if he got inflation down, compared to only 24% (likely those who already ardently support him) who said their opinion of him would improve if he passed Build Back Better, a multi-trillion dollar bill that would, under realistic circumstances, create additional inflation.

This strategy of shifting focus works. Bill Clinton changed his agenda and strategy significantly after similar disapproval and managed to win re-election despite massive Republican wins in the midterms. He listened to the voters, stopped trying to be transformational and got reelected. More recently, Glen Youngkin shifted his campaign to focus on education when that became the central focus of the Virginia gubernatorial race, and it pushed him over the finish line.

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Biden will be able to make similar transformations. Instead of focusing his messaging on his legislative successes such as the relatively popular bipartisan infrastructure bill, he continues to focus on the utterly doomed Build Back Better bill and the now-collapsed John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which was never likely to make it through the Senate.

However, it seems unlikely that any of these changes will be made anytime soon. At his recent press conference, when confronted with his unpopularity in the polls, Biden responded that “I don’t believe the polls.” Furthermore, when asked if he would “do anything differently in the second year of [his] term,” Biden gave three answers, none of which involved an actual change in course from his unpopular first year. 

First, he said that he would make his case to the public more. Given that his agenda is not so popular, this may be necessary, but it seems a bit backward to respond to a public that has adamantly opposed your agenda by telling them that really they should want it. Instead of simply discarding the failed Build Back Better, Biden claimed that he could split it up into smaller bills, while Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi added they might rename the bill. Instead of moving away from the Voting Rights Act, Biden claimed that without it, future elections “easily could be … illegitimate,” a follow-up to his recent statement that those who voted against the bill were on the side of Bull Conner, George Wallace and Jefferson Davis. Instead of changing the agenda to fit the will of the people, Biden is insisting on name changes, repackaging the same agenda or simply calling anyone who opposes him racist and being done with it.

Second, Biden claimed that he would “seek more advice from experts … from academia to editorial writers to think tanks.” This kind of thinking was precisely what got Biden in trouble in the first place; besides, by his own admission, not actually being a change from what he did in his first year. He took advice from historians early on, resulting in receiving advice to be a transformative president like FDR or LBJ. As the polls are now showing, that was never what his evenly split Senate or five-seat House advantage were a mandate for, but instead of walking back his error, Biden plans to double down. Instead of starting to listen more to the voters than editorial writers, he intends to do precisely the opposite.

Third, Biden said that he would get involved in the midterm elections. Besides the obvious point that someone with approval ratings as low as Biden’s is unlikely to be a great help to anyone on the campaign trail, this, just like the previous two “changes,” is not an agenda change in any way, shape or form.

Maybe Biden will wake up to the realities of his situation if stung by midterm losses similar to Democrats’ in 1994. Until then, don’t expect anything to change.

Photo Caption: President Biden’s approval rating is falling.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons