Explaining Approval Numbers

Dare I say that it's the economy?

Not long after seeing James Joyner’s post about Biden’s poor approval numbers, I saw a link to a new The Economist/YouGov poll. To, I suspect, no one’s surprise, one need look no further than questions on the economy to figure out why Biden’s numbers are where they are.

Some examples:

And, so on.

Note that if 55% of the population thinks we are in recession (we aren’t, but that’s what most people think is the term for an economy they should be unhappy about), then it is hardly any wonder that they do not approve of the job the president is doing (regardless of whether he can do anything about the situation or not).

Note, too, 72% of respondents think that a recession would have either a very serious or somewhat serious effect on their personal finances:

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Lounsbury says:

    One can suspect that for a majority of respondents, the word recession = “I am personally feeling economic squeeze” and has little to do with any proper analtical definition.

    The figures on inflation are indicative of that, and are in most respects unsurprising as it is a long-standing observation in economic analytical circles that generally populaces hate inflation (or more strictly, inflation rates that accelerate over the experienced normal) and have a perception of pain from inflation quite beyond what a strictly numeric economic calculation would suggest should be there.

    Nothing specific to USA in this moment.

    But does rather say that the Democrats are committing severe political malpractice when poopooing inflation or attempting to explain away. Rapidly (in time terms) accelerating inflation is virtually always political poison in democracies.

    Maundering on about job creation is a path to losing at this time.

  2. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Of course it is the economy.
    Well rather, as you hint at, it’s peoples perception of the economy.
    Yes there is inflation, which is worldwide…and which show indications of cooling off.
    And yes…gas prices are high, as they are world-wide, while fossil fuel corporations profits are setting records.
    But also there is a lot of good news out there. Trend lines for jobs, wages, and GDP are all healthy. The media doesn’t talk about that much, preferring to repeat Republican talking points, by-and-large.
    BTW – If you haven’t seen this take a minute to skim thru it.
    Unfortunately for Biden, perception is reality.
    And the right-wing is far better at steering perception than the left.

  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    It’s inflation, buttressed by the fear mongering of an expected recession due to changes in monetary policy intended to fight that inflation. Then to make matters worse, the most visible example of increasing prices, gasoline, has spiked. It should be noted for reasons (the war) that have little to do with the typical causes of inflation. And food prices are rising for similar reasons.

    Presidents can’t do much about inflation, particularly in the short term, but they can be blamed.

  4. Kathy says:

    I maintain the most insightful observation ever on US politics, by far, was made by James Carville in 1992: It’s the economy, stupid.

  5. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: Isn’t the right better at shaping perceptions because we are (despite Dr. Joyner’s occasional protests to the contrary) a center-right nation in terms of how the aggregate political view works? The right is better at “messaging” because it’s more likely to be saying what most of us want to hear. I don’t think that factor should be discounted.

    It also plays into the “reaching out to the *moderates*” approach that pops up here from time to time. Where’s the line between “reaching out” and “selling out?”

  6. Lounsbury says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: Entertaining, ideological responses. Of course “slowing” inflation for various values of “what I would like to believe” as illustratively Eurozone accelerates to 8.1% annualised in May up nearly a full percentage point from prior month, annualised basis, while Asian inflation after comparative moderation relative to USA, Europe.

    Of course Left wishful thinking on “transitory” continues, but no, globally the aggregate signs are like last year when transitory was the undiluted Left narrative, not pointing to confidence in a real sustained abatement, the contrary the supply shocks rather say the opposite although Central Banks are now taking proper action.

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: There is nothing particularly special here, broadly inflation is political poison, and people hate it. You need not reach to your favoured Right Wing Unfair Meanies Supervillians political explanations.

    Rather than excuse making and special pleading, would be best if you pivoted to making it your communication focus (and where there are real levers, modest as they are, as in tariffs, removing those or suspending until inflation is down).

    (Selling out is the concern of marginal twats who prefer purity over actual achievements, that’s the line)

  7. Lounsbury says:

    Now here illustratively is finally an action which bizarrely was not taken earlier, in re tariffs and self-harming to your agendas (both inflation and solar RE expansion), tariff suspension.

  8. Sleeping Dog says:


    Of course your realize that since the target for the tariffs is China, lifting them would have R’s attacking Biden for being soft on China. Finally, the pain caused by the tariffs became greater than the potential backlash. It is simply another example of how our system of government often leaves us without a coherent government.

  9. gVOR08 says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Isn’t the right better at shaping perceptions because we are (despite Dr. Joyner’s occasional protests to the contrary) a center-right nation in terms of how the aggregate political view works? The right is better at “messaging” because it’s more likely to be saying what most of us want to hear. I don’t think that factor should be discounted.

    Please see my comment on Joyner’s post about Biden’s popularity in which I quote Dan Pfeiffer on messaging. He notes, for reasons Dr. T has expounded on, GOPs only need to reach their base, Ds have to reach to the right of the median voter. To hold the House this year we’ll need to win ten to twenty percent more of the poplar vote.

    Pfeiffer also notes D policies have strong majority support. The polls that say we’re center right depend on political innocence. They ask some variation of are you liberal or conservative, but they don’t elaborate. Picture the median voter: Are you liberal or conservative? I’m conservative. Should the rich pay more taxes? Sure. Should we tax carbon? Oh yeah. What should we do about Roe v Wade? Oh keep it like it is. Are you sure you’re a conservatives? Oh yeah, I hate them libruls.

    You’re right that it’s easier for for GOPs to sell what they’re selling. Blood and soil nationalism has always been an easy sell. And as Pfeiffer points out, they have, in FOX et al, a way bigger megaphone than we do.

  10. Lounsbury says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Eh, suspending tariffs (in this cited instance it was not even on Chinese product directly, rather South East Asian PV, illustrating that the tariff self-harm is not just China) is a 24 hour news cycle whereas inflation is a sustained beating, it’s submerging your foundation in acid. Take the bloody minor hit and suspend.

    You lot virtually specialise in pre-defeating yourselves via eggheadism and lining up Why I will fail narratives….

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    We judge presidents the way spoiled children judge parents.

    Presidents are employees. We pay them to do a job. They should be judged the way a reasonable manager would judge one of their subordinates.

    I judge presidents primarily on their management of foreign policy since that’s something they actually control. And I take into consideration what they encountered when I hired them, how much I’m asking them to do, what resources I’ve made available, etc… I tend to discount whatever promises they’ve made to get elected – they tell us the lies we demand to hear, whose fault is that? Better voters would yield better politicians generally, but we are a stupid, superstitious, astonishingly ignorant country, so it’s a miracle anyone in public office manages not to shit themselves on a daily basis.

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Lounsbury: Who said anything about “Right Wing Unfair Meanies Supervillians?” My comment was only about the political lean of the country–something that is pretty well documented for most of my life. Perhaps you are engaging in some sort of weird transference thing by putting words into people’s mouths.

  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “Pfeiffer also notes D policies have strong majority support.”

    Alas, strong majority support=/=a Congress that will pass bills that have strong majority support. Pesky geography (and low primary voter turnout–since it’s that season of the year).

  14. DK says:

    @Lounsbury: “Excuse making” = when you tell the truth based instead of blindly catering to right wing propaganda.

    It’s a fact that inflation is not just an American phenomenon, and Biden is not singularly responsible for the global economy running hot as it comes out of a global pandemic, based on monetary policy that prevented a 1930s style Depression, a far worse alternative. That’s just the truth.

    Also, modern global right — led by vicious scumbags like Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, and Steve Bannon — is meanspirited, unfair, and villainous. As well as dishonest, bigoted, selfish, and violent. Add cowardly and complicit for those conservatives who won’t stand up to the racist, extremist trash on their side. These statements are also truthful.

    Democrats need to keep telling the truth. If Americans reward Trump’s Party of Pathological Lying, then Americans will suffer the consequences of our bad choice. So be it. (My favorite trope in punditry is “Democrats in trouble” as if Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and their Manhattan/California liberals are going to be the ones hurting.) But lying is not a winning long term strategy for the GQP, and Democrats should not chase them down the pyrrhic victory rabbit hole.

    That said, Biden should definitely end Trump’s inflationarty China tarriffs. He should be criticized for dragging his feet on this.

  15. Ken_L says:

    Few writers in the media ask themselves why “55% of the population thinks we are in recession”. Possibly it’s because the relentless good news about job creation gets a brief mention on page 10, while the front pages carry story after story about the horrible impact of inflation, complete with absurdly fabricated anecdotes about “grocery bills twice what they were a year ago” and devoid of any mention that raw inflation has been offset to a large extent by rising incomes.

    Having said that, Democrats are their own worst enemies, wringing their hands about inflation and assuring voters they feel their pain, while failing to do anything about it. Taking a leaf out of the Trump Republican handbook – never explain and never apologize – they should be telling Americans moderate temporary inflation was the price paid to get the US economy back in full production. Whereas the EU’s unemployment rate remains above 6%, America’s has been at 3.6% for three months in a row. They should be telling Americans the government doesn’t run baby formula factories, and shortages are due to failures in the capitalist system Trump Republicans venerate. They should be telling Americans that gas prices have nothing to do with government policies, but are a direct result of the massive global cuts in production negotiated by the Trump Administration in 2020.

    Sticking to this kind of blunt, easily articulated messaging would marginally improve their position. But the media hive decided early last year that Republicans would take back the House in the mid-terms and that this was Jimmy Carter’s second term, and it’s not about to let anything spoil its predictions.

  16. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Alas, you and I—and, indeed, almost anyone who reads, much less comments, on political blogs are not representative of the electorate and its decision-making.

    @Steven: I absolutely agree that the economy explains most of the fluctuation in Biden’s poll numbers. My post of yesterday morning was really just a roundabout way of saying that, realistically, Biden’s ceiling is around 54% approval because of sorting, the permanent campaign, and related factors.

  17. @James Joyner: I really didn’t mean for this to be aimed at your post as much as simply complementary to the overall conversation on this topic.

  18. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    I’m not sure how “Death Panels” and “Benghazi” and “Life begins at Conception” fits in with what you are saying?
    Republicans were able to take Kaepernick’s racial injustice protest and turn it into something completely different thru their messaging.
    Republicans held 33 hearings on Benghazi. Trump killed hundreds of thousands of Americans with his incompetence, and then attacked the Capitol on live TV, and Democrats can’t get anyone interested.

  19. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    February and March showed slowing, and April dropped.
    The numbers for May come out on Friday.

  20. @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Republicans held 33 hearings on Benghazi. Trump killed hundreds of thousands of Americans with his incompetence, and then attacked the Capitol on live TV, and Democrats can’t get anyone interested.

    Here’s the question, though: how many Dems voted R because of the Benghazi hearings? As I like to note, HRC won the popular vote in 2106. As such, the notion that the Rs are wizards on messaging and that is why the win doesn’t hold up to empirical scrutiny.

    Rs won in 2016 because the EC is stacked in their favor.

    A lot of Ds will watch the 1/6 hearings. But a lot of Rs won’t. Is that a “messaging” fail? Maybe, but the whole thesis seems to miss what mass behavior looks like (which, BTW, will actually be a lot of people watching other stuff en masse).

  21. @Daryl and his brother Darryl: The problem is this. (scroll down to the today, yesterday, last week, etc. bar graphs.

    A station I drive past on a daily basis jumped over 17 cents in one day and it up 40ish cents since last week. People notice and people freak out.

  22. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    HRC won the popular vote in 2106. As such, the notion that the Rs are wizards on messaging and that is why the win doesn’t hold up to empirical scrutiny.

    Sure – but how many people think HRC is crooked, even though decades of investigations have pretty much cleared her?
    I would argue that the hearings (and Putin’s meddling) kept Trump in the game, and Comey delivered the game winning homer.

    “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee,” McCarthy said. “What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have have known any of that had happened had we not fought and made that happen.”

  23. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Yes – I get it.
    I guess I just have a different perspective, and understand that short of handing MBS a journalist and a bone-saw there isn’t much Biden can do.

  24. @Daryl and his brother Darryl: I am not arguing that none of that (not to mention decades of negative press) had no effect. I am questioning, rather vigorously, the overall thesis that the Rs are masters of messaging who know how to influence outcomes and the Ds are bumblers who can’t manage to match the Rs in their approach.

    I question that thesis for a variety of reasons, but not the least of which is that the clear evidence suggests that Ds have more actual support than Rs in the population and that what blocks the Ds from winning more is not their lack of rhetorical skills, it is the institutions of our system.

    As I frequently note, I am not saying that messaging is nothing, but it is clear that it is not the main issue and that even the most brilliant messaging strategy won’t make the Senate, for example, more amenable to passing legislation the most Americans want.