Why is Joe Biden so unpopular?

The Signal

Why is Joe Biden so unpopular? David A. Hopkins on the U.S. president’s political troubles—and the limits on his ability to resolve them anytime soon.
Wassim Chouak
Wassim Chouak
As unimaginable as it might have been a year ago, Joe Biden is starting to resemble Donald Trump in public-opinion polling. The current U.S. president’s approval rating is only slightly higher than his predecessor’s was at the same point in his tenure, in late April 2018. Biden took office in January 2021 with 53 percent approval and only 36 percent disapproval, but he’s ending this month with 53 percent disapproval and only 42 percent approval. According to the polling firm Gallup, approval for Biden has “declined far more among younger than older generations of Americans,” to where “older Americans are now more likely to approve of the president than younger Americans are.” (His approval among Millennials and Generation Z has dropped from about 60 percent to around 40.) All of this is bad news for Biden’s Democratic Party, which is already bracing for a likely Republican takeover of Congress in November’s midterm elections. What’s Biden’s problem?
David A. Hopkins is a professor of political science at Boston College. Hopkins looked at Biden’s approval rating for The Signal at the height of the president’s popularity last April and then again in October after he’d lost most Americans’ support. Six months on, Hopkins sees Biden’s persistent unpopularity as the result of unfulfilled hopes: in the population at large, disappointment that the pandemic is lingering while inflation is driving up costs; among Democrats, frustration that the president has failed to accomplish much of his legislative agenda; and across the political center, a fear that he’s too beholden to left-wing operators within and around his party. It’s not just that the political context is different, now that Biden’s political identity is no longer tied to being the electoral alternative to Donald Trump. It’s that Biden is beset with new problems as the earlier ones compound themselves, while much of what the president has managed to accomplish aren’t things that earn him a lot of support from voters. As Hopkins notes, there’s plenty in American history to suggest that Biden could rebound from a first-term slump and win back public trust—and eventually re-election—but there’s also plenty in recent years that’s been very much unprecedented.
Graham Vyse: How do you see Biden’s polling numbers comparing with other contemporary presidents’ in the second year of their first terms?
David A. Hopkins: They’re low—taking the comparison back to the 1950s, when we started gathering modern survey data in America. Of course, you could argue it’s harder to be popular than it used to be. We’re in a more polarized era now, when there’s a real limit to a president’s potential popularity. Biden is roughly where Trump was at this point in his term.
Vyse: What factors stand out to you as driving Biden’s unpopularity?
Hopkins: It’s always hard to know. Certainly, there’s broad economic dissatisfaction in the country. People see the economy generally—and inflation in particular—as a problem, and history tells us that the U.S. public holds presidents responsible for its perception of the national economy. Considering that approval of Biden among Democrats is also really diminished since he took office—and his support is down among young Democrats, African-American Democrats, and Democratic-leaning independents—there may be some frustration in the Democratic base that Biden hasn’t delivered more on his legislative agenda.
Biden is a different kind of political figure than some of America’s other recent presidents. He doesn’t have the symbolic or personal connection to his base of supporters that Donald Trump or Barack Obama had. Biden isn’t charismatic the way they were, and he’s never tried to be. Biden’s selling point as a candidate was that he was the guy you could hire to do the job—defeating Trump and achieving a lot in office as a result of knowing how the system worked, including how to work with Congress.
The idea was that, even if you didn’t find him to be the most inspirational figure, you’d like what he did. But Biden has had challenges—both in ending the pandemic and bringing about the return of normal life, and in advancing the Democratic legislative agenda. In some ways, Biden is more like George H.W. Bush or Jimmy Carter than he is like Obama or Trump. It’s clear Obama had a personal connection with African-Americans and young people in the Democratic Party that Biden doesn’t have.
At the same time, there are potential advantages to Biden’s approach. In 2020, he campaigned as a de-polarizing figure who wouldn’t scare people outside the Democratic Party the way Obama and Hillary Clinton did. It may have been a benefit in the generation election—or even the decisive factor in his win. We live in an age of negative partisanship, where people are often more motivated by what they hate than what they like. A lot of Biden’s support, all along, has been based on him not being Trump. Now that he’s no longer in an electoral campaign against Trump, there isn’t that same glue keeping some of his supporters stuck with him. Biden also hasn’t picked fights with Republicans in order to motivate his base. Trump was very effective at picking fights that rallied his supporters, but that’s not Biden’s style. Now, if there’s a Republican Congress starting next January, that may become a foil for Biden and change the dynamic ahead of the 2024 campaign. He may spend a lot more time in public fights with his opposition.
Karl Schumacher
Karl Schumacher
More from David A. Hopkins at The Signal:
Biden was never the favored candidate of progressive tastemakers like intellectuals, academics, and media figures. That caused some to dismiss him prematurely in the 2020 Democratic primaries, but then there was this weird overcompensation after he took office—all these stories about how he was going to be the next Franklin Delano Roosevelt and pass this transformative legislative agenda. That was way over the top and unrealistic, considering what the U.S. Senate looked like and the fact that [the center-right West Virginia Democrat] Joe Manchin was going to be the pivotal vote there. American media was full of people who weren’t necessarily tremendous Biden fans, but they were so happy that he was the president, rather than Trump, that there was an immediate lovefest—a sense that he was going to turn out to be the president of every progressive’s greatest dreams. Biden may have been hurt when those hopes came to be dashed. There’s been all this talk since about how he’s a failure—this disillusionment.”
He’s clearly not in his element fighting the culture war. He comes from a generation of Democratic politicians that sees a focus on cultural conflict as politically risky compared with making old-fashioned economic appeals. That said, he’s also very sensitive to the changing nature of the Democratic Party, which is a different animal than it used to be.”
There was a huge generation gap in the Democratic presidential primaries in 2020. Younger Democrats gravitated much more to candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or even Pete Buttigieg. A lot of them ultimately voted for Biden, because Biden was ultimately the alternative to Trump. Now, these people may well vote for him again in 2024 over Trump or another Republican—it’s easier to win back people who used to support you than it is to win over people who’ve never supported you—but they may not turn out in great numbers for this year’s midterm elections.”

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