Biden’s Approval Rating Isn’t Bouncing Back

President Joe Biden spent the beginning of his term comfortably above the water in the polls. On July 20, the six-month anniversary of his inauguration, his average approval rating was 52.3 percent and his average disapproval rate was 42.5 percent – numbers that were fairly representative of his first semester.

But that honeymoon period stalled in late summer. The delta variant of the coronavirus led to an increase in cases and deaths from the end of July, accompanied by renewed fears of the economy and inflation; By August 15, Biden’s approval rating had dropped 2.3 percentage points (to 50.0 percent) and his disapproval rating had increased 1.3 points (to 43.8 percent). On the same day, the Taliban did took control of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and completed an amazingly rapid collapse of the country’s government after the withdrawal of American troops. The takeover by the Taliban and the one that followed humanitarian crisis, seemed to accelerate the decline in Biden’s popularity. As of August 30, more Americans disapproved of Biden’s job performance than they did, and on September 8, his approval / disapproval range was 45.0 percent to 49.1 percent.

At the time, we theorized that Biden’s approval rating could soon recover, especially if the news cycle continued after the crisis in Afghanistan. After all, presidential approval ratings are trending backwards towards the mean, and the swings in approval ratings for former President Donald Trump have been particularly short-lived. But we are now more than a month away from Biden’s troubled August, and there has been no sign of a recovery in his approval rating. At the end of the day on October 5, Biden’s approval / disagreement range was 44.8 percent to 47.9 percent. In fact, this approval rating is the lowest in his presidency to date.

Biden’s approval rating has not improved, although Afghanistan has disappeared from the headlines. Corresponding Subtitle data from the internet archive TV news archive, from August 12 to September 1, the three major cable news networks (CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC) mentioned Afghanistan in an average of 1,320 15-second clips per day. However, from September 2nd to September 30th, they mentioned the country in an average of only 403 clips per day. (This is still more common than Afghanistan was in the news before the Taliban came to power. From August 1 to 11, the three stations mentioned Afghanistan in an average of 56 clips per day.)

A line graph showing the number of 15 second cable news clips that are mentioned "Afghanistan" with top mentions in mid-August and a slow, loud decline afterwards.  A line graph showing a line for Biden's disapproval rating and a line for Biden's approval rating.  The lines cross in late August and late September, 48.7% of Americans oppose Biden.

This is in line with the argument that Biden’s decline in approval was never just about Afghanistan. The timing suggests it was also driven by the resurgent pandemic, dissatisfaction with the economy, or even the natural return to a post-honeymoon mean that is more realistic in these polarized times. In other words, a variety of factors.

Accordingly, there may not be an easy fix for Biden. Even improving the COVID-19 situation cannot improve his political fortune: Loud Data compiled by The New York Times, the rolling average of newly discovered COVID-19 cases across the country has declined since mid-September, but Biden’s average approval rate on the coronavirus has remained constant. (As of October 5, 50.5 percent of Americans agreed to his handling of the pandemic and 40.7 percent disapproved.)

A line chart showing the seven-day moving average of COVID-19 cases in the United States, rising from July 1 and peaking in mid-September.  A line chart showing two lines representing the proportion of Americans who approve and disapprove of Biden's handling of the pandemic.  Biden's approval rating steadily declines, while his disapproval rating steadily increases from July to early October.
A line chart showing the seven-day moving average of US COVID-19 cases, which increases from July 1 and peaks in mid-September.  A line chart showing two lines representing the proportion of Americans who approve and disapprove of Biden's handling of the pandemic.  Biden's approval rating steadily declines, while his disapproval rating steadily increases from July to early October.

Of course, the case numbers remain quite high in absolute terms (higher than at any other point in the pandemic except last winter), so Americans may not be in the mood to give Biden credit just yet. However, it doesn’t mean that Biden won’t get a political boost if and when the pandemic really ends.

Other news developments could also help or harm Biden politically, such as whether the Democrats in Congress pass their bills on infrastructure and budget or the government defaults on its debts. So we have to wait and see what happens to Biden’s approval rating in the future – which will be important, among other things, to assess how big the shellac Democrats will be in the 2022 midterm elections (or whether they will get one all). But for now, at least for now, Biden has a lower approval rating than all but two presidents since 1945. So if he wants to regain his popularity, he has to dig an unusually large hole for himself.

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