Should Biden’s Polls Make Democrats Panic?

He’s doing well by historic standards, but that’s not good enough to win the midterms.

Judging by polls, August has been Joe Biden’s worst month as president and it’s not close. Over the 30 days prior to August 25, in both the FiveThirtyEight and Real Clear Politics job approval averages, he’s lost about five points and rests around 47 percent. Should Democrats panic? In one sense, no, but in another sense, holy hell yes.

Losing some altitude after seven months on the job is pretty typical for a president. Biden’s drop since inauguration, per FiveThirtyEight, is 5.4 points—with very stable approval until August. But that’s less of a drop than his last four predecessors. According to data from the American Presidency Project, Donald Trump lost 10 points in the same period of his presidency, Barack Obama 17 and Bill Clinton 14. If I cheat a bit and calculate George W. Bush’s drop through early September (after Bush took a month-long August vacation, and just before the 9/11 attacks), I get 6 points.

Several presidents who won re-election suffered crisis-driven first-year poll drops. Obama bled support from whites after he criticized the police officers who arrested an African-American professor in his own home, then “Tea Party” groups stoked backlash to his health reform proposal, plus the Great Recession dragged on longer than many voters expected despite Obama’s stimulus package. Clinton was buffeted by a series of failed nominations and policy initiatives, passage of a controversial tax hike, and conspiracy-mongering around the suicide of presidential aide and family friend Vince Foster. By the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term, a burgeoning recession began to weigh down his numbers. (One president who had a great first year was George H. W. Bush, who hit 80 percent approval at the turn of 1990 not long after the Berlin Wall came down. But that meant nothing by Election Day in 1992.)

With that historical perspective in mind, Biden’s modest decline in job approval against a backdrop of a surging delta variant and a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan doesn’t seem calamitous.

Yet Biden and his Democrats shouldn’t be sanguine. Biden started his presidency with a job approval number, 53 percent, which was lower than the inaugural numbers of his successful recent predecessors (not counting the one-term Trump). Biden’s drop is relatively small, but it has taken him below 50 percent approval.

And while an average president can hit first-term political road bumps and still recover in time to win re-election, Biden needs to be an above-average president for Democrats to have a chance of keeping their fragile congressional majority after the 2022 midterm elections. Without that majority, in the second half of his first term, Biden’s legislative agenda will be severely constrained.

In May, I wrote that with good crisis management and divided opposition, Democrats had a solid shot at overcoming historical patterns and avoiding major House and Senate losses. But I did have a caveat: “The pandemic may still linger. Vaccine skeptics may keep us from herd immunity. Variants may circulate. Inflation might be a real worry. And Biden may begin to shoulder more blame.”

That appears to be where we are. The number of daily Covid-19 cases today is 14 times greater than it was on July 5. The rate of inflation has jumped from 1.4 percent in January to 5.4 percent in July. When a recent NBC News poll found Biden’s numbers sinking on the questions of handling the pandemic and the economy, the pollsters said, “It is the domestic storm, Covid’s delta wave, that is causing more difficulties … for President Biden” and “The best way to understand this poll is to forget Afghanistan.”

The optimistic take is that these problems will resolve themselves. Virus spikes eventually end, and vaccination rates have begun to grow again. Inflation may be a temporary phenomenon driven by the re-opening of the pandemic-stricken economy, or a larger problem but one that the Federal Reserve can manage without Biden’s help. But another way to look at the current situation is that—short of Biden making a drastic course correction on pandemic strategy or economic policy—the Democrats’ fate largely rests on the decisions made by Trump’s vaccine-resistant supporters and Trump’s (more data-driven) pick to run our central bank.

The one thing Democrats have the most direct control over is their own legislative agenda. Despite the recent frictions between moderates and progressives, Democrats should still be able to get through Congress both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the broader “Build Back Better” plan—though the latter must still go through the budget reconciliation process and its particulars are yet to be negotiated. Both proposals currently poll well. A couple of legislative wins could restore a sense of forward progress and confidence in our economic future.

On the other hand, a bruising legislative battle sometimes can leave a mark—Obama’s approval had already fallen just below 50 percent by the time he signed the Affordable Care Act in March 2010 and drifted down further in the following months. One of the reasons the president’s party usually performs poorly in the midterms is that tough choices inject stress in governing coalitions, and the “Build Back Better” legislative process has been creating some intra-party stress.

Furthermore, the economic strategy of Biden’s first legislative win—the American Rescue Plan—appears insufficient to carry Democrats through 2022. The nearly $2 trillion injection of cash has done wonders to alleviate poverty. For the time being, more widely felt inflation has overshadowed that success. Biden needs not just another policy win in the short run, but a confidence-building vision of economic growth for the long run. To accomplish that, Biden has primarily bet on infrastructure—broadly defined. But perhaps calling greater attention to Biden’s antitrust agenda, which doesn’t have to go through the congressional sausage factory, could fortify his vision.

What’s clear is that the presidential honeymoon is over, pretty much right on schedule. Biden likes to say “Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.” But he’s no longer being judged in comparison to his immediate racist, reckless, ridiculous predecessor. He’s being judged on his own performance, and that won’t change until the Republicans select a 2024 nominee—not in time for the 2022 midterms.

To return to the question at hand: should Democrats panic? Arguably yes, because as of today Biden’s is not popular enough to prevent a disastrous loss of one or both chambers of Congress. But panic suggests a need for an entirely new game plan. Biden hasn’t yet finished the game plan he’s put in motion, and it still has time to work.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"