Why Are Biden’s Polls So Awful?

A pretty good President has numbers comparable to his historically bad predecessor.

The headline on the latest NBC News/Meet the Press poll, “‘Downhill,’ ‘divisive’: Americans sour on nation’s direction,” is certainly alarming. It is, alas, accurate.

Overwhelming majorities of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, that their household income is falling behind the cost of living, that political polarization will only continue and that there’s a real threat to the nation’s democracy and majority rule.

What’s more, the nation’s top politicians and political parties are more unpopular than popular, and interest in the upcoming November midterms is down — not up.

And when Americans were asked to describe where they believe America is today, the top answers were “downhill,” “divisive,” “negative,” “struggling,” “lost” and “bad.”

Those are the grim findings of a new national NBC News poll conducted less than 10 months before the midterm elections, when control of the U.S. Senate, U.S. House and governors’ mansions across the country will be up for grabs.

“Downhill, divided, doubting democracy, falling behind, and tuning out — this is how Americans are feeling as they’re heading into 2022,” said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research Associates, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies.

That pessimism and gloom isn’t helping the party in control of the White House and Congress.

While the poll shows Democrats enjoying a narrow 1 point advantage over Republicans as the party that should control Congress, it also shows President Joe Biden’s job approval rating remaining in the low 40s, Republicans holding a double-digit edge in enthusiasm and key Democratic groups losing interest in the upcoming election.

“There is nothing but flashing red flights and warning signs for Democrats,” said McInturff, the Republican pollster.

According to the poll, 72 percent of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction — essentially unchanged from the 71 percent who held this view in October’s NBC News poll.

It marks just the sixth time in the poll’s history when 70 percent or more have said the nation is on the wrong track in back-to-back surveys.

“In the three instances when this sustained dark outlook coincided with an election year, it foreshadowed bad news for the party in power — 1992, 2008 and 2016,” said Horwitt, the Democratic pollster.

On the economy, while job creation is up and the unemployment rate is down, 61 percent of respondents in the poll say their family’s income is falling behind the cost of living.

That’s compared with 30 percent who say they’re staying about even and 7 percent who say their income is going up faster than the cost of living.

It’s notable that these findings are consistent with other polling.

Here’s FiveThirtyEight:

And, for the old-timers, RealClearPolitics:

The extent to which this is predictive of the November midterms is naturally the focus of the political press. But I’m really more interested in the sheer bleakness of the numbers. Biden is a likable guy who has gotten some good things done and is a massive improvement over his predecessor. Yet, while started with much more popularity than Trump, he’s roughly at the same point a year in.

It can’t simply be a function of polarization/partisanship, the most obvious explanation. After all, while Trump was underwater essentially his whole administration, Biden was riding pretty high his first seven months. He got a massive, and fairly popular, “rescue package” passed through Congress and did a pretty impressive job early on getting COVID vaccinations rolled out.

Clearly, though, something happened.

Back to the poll:

Asked their two most important issues facing the country, the top responses from Americans were jobs and the economy (a combined 42 percent), the coronavirus (29 percent), voting rights and election integrity (25 percent), the cost of living (23 percent) and border security and immigration (22 percent).

Among Democrats, the top issues were the coronavirus, voting rights and election integrity, social and racial justice, jobs/economy and climate change.

Among Republicans, the top issues were jobs/economy, border security/immigration, taxes and spending and the cost of living.

It turns out, Biden’s approval on the top two issues is tanking:

He’s gone from sky-high approval on COVID to considerably underwater. And the fall on the economy is almost as steep.

As we’ve discussed many times, Americans are clearly ready to be “done” with COVID and Biden clearly seems to be taking the blame for the frustration that we’re not. Yes, it’s unfair because Republican politicians and their related infotainment network continue to politicize vaccination and masking, making Biden’s job harder. (Although, oddly, our compliance rates on these issues isn’t wildly different than it is around the developed world.) But inconsistent messaging certainly hasn’t helped matters.

On the economy, we’ve been witnessing the Great Resignation unfold. Not to mention levels of inflation that we haven’t seen in four decades cutting into our standard of living. That, combined with various supply chain issues, the collapse of sectors of the service economy, and a bunch of related issues makes the dour outlook perfectly reasonable.

The fact that these issues are global, not local, would seem rather strong evidence that they’re not Biden’s fault. But, as I’ve maintained for decades, we give Presidents too much credit for good economies and too much blame for bad. If things rebound by 2024—as we would certainly expect—he’ll get unearned credit for the recovery that will help his re-election prospects.

FILED UNDER: Climate Change, Democracy, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    He hasn’t been able to fix everything trump f’d up in 4 years, in his first year. I suspect that plays a large part in it. That and a failure to understand the limitations of our “democracy.”

    8
  2. Moosebreath says:

    The timing suggests that Afghanistan was a significant factor, especially the constant headlines about how the withdrawal was mishandled, with few if any pieces noting how wrong those takes were afterwards.

    Damn that liberal media!

    10
  3. It can’t simply be a function of polarization/partisanship, the most obvious explanation. After all, while Trump was underwater essentially his whole administration, Biden was riding pretty high his first seven months

    Well, “riding high” in the mid-to-lower 50s and then now sinking to the lower 40s. This is not a huge range and is kind if the range we have seen, going back to much of Obama, IIRC.

    I think a huge percentage is linked to partisan polarization. It forms the baseline. Throw inflation and Covid on top, and here we are.

    And it also seems that every news story for a week plus has been about how Biden overpromised and underdelivered. That has to be worth a few negative points. I have noted that drumbeat from my limited FNC exposure to the supposed bastions of liberal MSM like WaPo, the NYT, and NPR.

    14
  4. DK says:

    Primary external factor is Americans being caught off-guard by COVID’s persistence — causing economic disruptions and a general malaise that’s put us in a bad mood.

    Primary factor within Biden’s control is his reluntsce to use his bully pulpit to speak over the relentlessly negative anti-Biden “liberal” (LOL) media, ridicule the right’s divisive culture wars, and control the narrative.

    Gotta work the refs much much more. When we compare enemies to George Wallace, don’t back down. Say, “I said what I said. Vote suppression in response to TFG’s sore loser election lies is Jim Crow 2.0. What!” Let their pbony MAGA Tears dominate a news cycle or two.

    P.S. Biden is polling underwater with youth voters and could get an easy jolt of goodwill from them by, among other things, canceling the portion of student loan debt that is within his purview to cancel.

    5
  5. Jim Brown 32 says:

    Why? Because you have an ENTIRE media ecosystem saying that Biden Sucks. My Secretary is a nice lady–a NorthEastern transplant to the Florida Panhandle. An Animal-rights person even—

    Just in the last week we’ve discussed Biden’s cognitive (a word she would never use btw) decline and George Soro’s evilness. She’s vaxed and boosted because of recent heart surgery–but “masks don’t work–” She claims cynicism of both Left and Right–but only vocalizes criticisms of the left. She recently started using her Trump coffee mugs again so I guess that means she’s comfortable that Im not a flaming African American liberal.

    Polls are data–but frankly not great data anymore because of the American populace’s susceptibility to propaganda. Viewing polls as a bellwether of performance–instead of what it is–a bellwether of messaging resonance will be what gets Biden beat.

    He can win re-election but he’ll have to start now challenging the Republican media machine in uncontested areas and undermine their credibility—which is pretty easy in a target audience vulnerable to conspiracy theories. They’d swallow a double cross narrative right down.

    9
  6. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I agree that partisanship is always the baseline in these things. But even granting a Y axis designed to highlight movement, Biden has gone from being 30 points above to 13 points under water. The delta is what I’m interested in.

    2
  7. Sleeping Dog says:

    Five Thirty Eight has a poll analysis up that touches on many of the issues. At the end of the day people are burned out and frustrated, and they are blaming someone and that is Biden. Biden being Biden doesn’t help himself as he is living, breathing, ambulatory Kinsley gaffe machine, that is just who he is.

    Both parties are despised by large sections of the populace and even their supporters hate them. Any and all issues, even the smallest, bring out existential rhetoric. There is no longer a political middle, though most of the population is in the middle and are giving up on the system

    I want to live in a different country.

    1
  8. Jim Brown 32 says:

    There is also no doubt in my mind if you looked at D/D-leaning and R/R-leaning split–you’ll find the R/R-leaning approvals drastically drawing down the averages.

    With one Executive order on Masks and a couple on Schools curricula–Republicans are going to declare VICTORY from Democratic tyranny on schools and Covid. Youngkin’s poll numbers on these amongst Republicans are going to be quite high. Despite doing jack and squat. The only thing that will change is the Republican media ecosystem’s amplification and astro-turfing which will make their consumers believe all is well on those fronts.

    1
  9. JKB says:

    Biden did an EO frenzy a year ago. With much fanfare, he tied himself to a lot of changes from the evil Trump that are directly attributable in the public mind to higher gas prices, inflation, etc. You can argue semantics, but you can’t sell that on social media or the hit-and-run MSM.

    And Biden directly imposed mask and vaccine mandates. He directly made millions worry for their future employment. You can argue, submit or die, and many did submit to keep their job, to travel, to avoid public opinion, but how do you make them forget? Forgive?

    3
  10. Modulo Myself says:

    I would say that Biden’s approval ratings never reflected enthusiasm. Since Obama’s reelection, the enthusiasm generated for Democrats has seemed forced to me–algorithmic, mediated, and over-engineered.

    I also think that Republican rage is hitting the same barrier. None of the stuff they are angry about is real. It’s all formulaic Death Wish/white flight nonsense that goes nowhere in reality. But Republicans are way more tribal and they need to believe in national politics as power forever, which is why they hit the same note 24/7. It’s all they have.

    3
  11. DK says:

    @JKB:

    Biden directly imposed mask and vaccine mandates. He directly made millions worry for their future employment.

    This gaslighting is why sane and educated people — and a supermajority of youth voters — no longer find the right a viable alternative.

    Now we are supposed to pretend maskimg did not exist before Biden; apparently, we spent 2020 maskless and fancy free. Lol wut? And that although Trump’s coronavirus lies and incompetence caused record job losses, it’s Biden making sure jobs rebounded by taking COVID science and mitigation seriously that threatened employment. Sure.

    No matter the center-left’s political problems, it remains only a good Election Day ground game away from power. Because the opposition is either dishonest or psycho, frequently both.

    16
  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    The answer is because Americans are children and they expect POTUS to be Daddy, so when Daddy doesn’t take them to Disneyland they whine. It doesn’t matter that the car is in the shop and it’s pouring buckets, they wanna go to Disneyland, waaaah.

    10
  13. Scott F. says:

    According to the poll, 72 percent of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction — essentially unchanged from the 71 percent who held this view in October’s NBC News poll.

    Were I in the polling group, I would have responded with the 72 percent thinking the country is headed in the wrong direction. Importantly, this wrong direction is despite Biden‘s every effort, not because of it.

    I don‘t think I‘m alone. Our government is deeply dysfunctional, our democracy is on life support, and I feel powerless to do anything about it.

    6
  14. HarvardLaw92 says:

    To some extent, it’s right guy at the wrong time. We spent our way into what is well on its way to becoming structural inflation and we’re staring down the barrel of three concurrent, gigantic asset bubbles – equities, housing, and commodities. Four if we toss in inverted bond markets. That was always going to come home to roost, and now it is. Not Biden’s fault, but he will get blamed because he’s in the seat when it starts to fall apart.

    Nothing, absolutely nothing, engenders fear and negative sentiment faster than “Am I going to be OK financially?”

    3
  15. Mister Bluster says:

    Nothing, absolutely nothing, engenders fear and negative sentiment faster than “Am I going to be OK financially?”

    Unless you are on a school board and a citizen has threatened to kill you.

    13
  16. Gustopher says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    I also think that Republican rage is hitting the same barrier. None of the stuff they are angry about is real.

    I don’t think it bothers them that what they believe isn’t real.

    My brother sent me links to the “litter box in school bathrooms for furries” thing, completely believing it was real, complete with Democrats are disgusting, etc., and when called out, replied “ But it’s funny.If they can have crying rooms they’ll have these soon enough ”

    Truth doesn’t matter.

    6
  17. Gustopher says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    we’re staring down the barrel of three concurrent, gigantic asset bubbles – equities, housing, and commodities

    Biden’s poll numbers had dropped before there was any sign of movement on any of those, and I don’t think they are part of his approvals at all at this point.

    4
  18. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Gustopher: The consequences of them were being felt long before the risk of their collapse came into the forefront. People just couched it as “why are [such and such] prices so high?”

    But that part was intended more in the vein of what happens to his approval numbers once they start to deflate (which they will)

    1
  19. Gustopher says:

    @DK:

    Primary factor within Biden’s control is his reluntsce to use his bully pulpit to speak over the relentlessly negative anti-Biden “liberal” (LOL) media, ridicule the right’s divisive culture wars, and control the narrative.

    I am on the fence as to whether the Bully Pulpit can influence much, but it can create the impression that the President is doing something.

    It’s as important to be seen doing something as it is to actually being doing something. Biden is a pretty good president, but he’s not being a good spokesman.

    He needs to get out more. I don’t care about the gaffes, and no one else does either — a Biden gaffe is the rough equivalent of a Tuesday morning in the last administration after all. He needs to be seen doing something.

    4
  20. @James Joyner:

    But even granting a Y axis designed to highlight movement, Biden has gone from being 30 points above to 13 points under water. The delta is what I’m interested in.

    That’s fair, but I think that it also has to take into account the way that starting a presidency tends to give a short-term pass that usually erodes very quickly.

    I am struck about the basically immediate closing of that gap, and would also note that the +/- for average approval starts to touch almost a month in.

    I agree that his numbers are being weighed down by real things (e.g, Covid, inflation). I am just not convinced that these numbers aren’t mostly just what we would expect to see of any president under anything other than perfect conditions.

    Indeed, I expect if conditions were truly perfect (whatever that might mean) he would have a hard time breaking 55% approval.

  21. @Steven L. Taylor: Which is, ultimately a response to the headline (why are the numbers so “awful.”

    I am not sure they are especially awful given prevailing partisanship and current conditions. But I agree that they aren’t good and not what the party would want going into the midterms.

  22. Scott F. says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Indeed, I expect if conditions were truly perfect (whatever that might mean) he would have a hard time breaking 55% approval.

    I think this is about right.

    I’ve been wondering what could possibly break us out of our current hyper-polarized current conditions. I’ve come to believe it will require one of the two parties reaching the 60+ senator threshold, so they’d at least have the capacity to enact their agenda without the go-to excuse that the other party (or a couple of rogue in-party members) is thwarting them. Then, we’d get to see more clearly which each party is actually willing to make of the country. Unfortunately (from my democracy loving perspective), the GOP is much more likely to get to 60+ first (pro-minority advantages being what they are).

    1
  23. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Scott F.:
    They won’t need 60. McConnell will kill the veto as soon as he regains the majority.

    2
  24. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Gustopher:

    The bully pulpit can work, but a president needs the rhetorical skills to be effective. Reagan and Clinton used it to great effect. The Bush’s couldn’t use it and Obama was a disappointment. The contrast between the high minded inspirational speeches and him trying to consolidate support and move legislation along was striking. Biden is like the Bush’s. On one of these threads, I suggested that Biden is a Kinsley gaffe machine, you can’t mount the bully pulpit and stick your foot in your mouth.

    1
  25. Raoul says:

    Considering everything 42% approval rating is really not that bad. One must realize that a lot of people will still vote for Biden while still disapproving. I saw a poll that had Biden and Trump basically tied. Once COVID fades away (it will), the supply chains start moving, inflation recedes (more likely than not), the press will start referring to Biden as the comeback kid and the approval numbers will increase. A mini stimulus bill will certainly help.

    1
  26. Gustopher says:

    @Sleeping Dog: I think Biden has a greater problem of just not being visible. Visibility translates into “he’s doing things for me and my family”.

    Go out, they’ll the unvaccinated that they are all going to die. Give his new dog a covid booster. Repeat Bob Dole’s joke about Newt Gingrich. Put a giant mask on the Lincoln Memorial. Show up in a lab coat and take some nasal swabs. Whatever, doesn’t matter. Be visible. Be seen doing something.

    1
  27. Gustopher says:

    Also, we were promised a cat.

    2
  28. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I don’t know why he’d do it now when he didn’t do it when he had a Republican President and House. Even assuming they take back both Houses, Biden is there with a veto.

    2
  29. Lounsbury says:

    @DK: Brilliant a bad economic policy with the mirage goal of ganing youth numbers, nothing being more effective than taking the minority sub-set of expensive university attending (but very much online whinging, highly verbal as Mr Drum puts it) students and building a national policy on that. Although of course the Lefty oriente online twitterati who fit this demographic would be indeed very happy.

  30. Rick DeMent says:

    So when was the last time a first year president didn’t get bad pool numbers at the one year mark. The only one I can think of is GWB based on the “rally round the flag” effect in the wake of 9/11.

    I’m not so sure Biden’s numbers are unusual.

    1
  31. John430 says:

    Why Are Biden’s Polls So Awful? Well, let’s see…He deserted Americans trapped in Afghanistan, he’s mismanaged the Covid responses, inflation is the worst in 40 years, and he sounds like Putin’s bitch. Thems jus’ fer starters.

  32. BeTheBall says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    OK – Remedial civics class everyone:
    Mitch McConnell cannot “kill the veto” when he takes the majority. The Veto is written in to the constitution – Article 1 sec 7. Mitch McConnell cannot change the constitution even if he had all 100 senators willing to do that.

    It really surprising to me the level of ignorance people have!

  33. @BeTheBall: To clarify: he is using the word veto in its general form (not the specific usage for the president that you cite). Currently, the filibuster empowers the Senate minority with a veto over most legislation (specifically a bloc of 41 or more Senators). The likelihood is that if McConnell was ever in the majority and needed to eliminate the filibuster (i.e., the minority’s veto) he would almost certainly do so.

    This conversation had nothing to do with the presidential veto powers you cite.

  34. @BeTheBall: Note there are multiple veto points in the US system, even if they are not formally called that in the constitution The House can kill a bill, the Senate can kill a bill, and the president can kill a bill.

    Noteworthy is that if either the House or Senate kill a bill, it is truly dead. The president’s formal veto can be overridden by the combined vote of the Congress (although such an outcome is unlikely).

    It is also noteworthy that in the House if the majority party wants a bill, it will pass. In the Senate, due to the filibuster, most bills can be killed (vetoed) by as few as 41 Senators, a minority, regardless of the preference of the majority of Senators.

    Note that the word veto simply means “I reject” and does not solely mean action by a president.

  35. Narazza says:

    Honestly, the statement that Biden is a likeable guy raised my eyebrows. The guy’s an asshole. I guess he has whacky-uncle tendencies that can be endearing in the right context, but that’s only when you see the guy once a year at the big family barbecue. When you’re working with a guy like, or working underneath him, it takes some serious rose-colored glasses to put up with him.

    I always figured that the guy’s numbers would tank, because he had two failed presidential bids under his belt, and both ended in disaster. It took extremely favorable press and a race full of unlikeable candidates to put him over the top. As soon as the honeymoon period was over, Biden didn’t have a chance. He doesn’t have the substance.

    You can scapegoat the “right wing hate machine” all you want, but even independents are falling away from Biden. That’s why his poll numbers fell so hard. People know what inflation looks like. People know what a shitty economy looks like. People know what a cack-handed pullout from Afghanistan looks like. People know what an old man in cognitive decline looks like. You can call people idiots to their face, you can make excuses, you can say that they’ve been brainwashed. But they know, and calling them idiots doesn’t change the fact that the price of gasoline is fifty percent higher than it was when Biden took office.

    Yeah. Some of these are local issues. Doesn’t change the fact that Biden has publically been on the wrong side of every one of those issues since he took office.