Ten months into his presidency, Joe Biden’s poll numbers are, by any measure, lukewarm. According to the latest figures, taken on November 24, only 43% of Americans approve of his performance in office, while a majority think he is not doing a good job. In a week when he announced that he is planning to run for the presidency again in 2024, these are surely not the numbers he is hoping for.
There are a number of explanations for Biden’s low approval rating, but some context is useful. While he is recently polling lower than his three Democrat predecessors at this point in their presidency, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were not faced with a pandemic in an era of dangerously toxic partisanship.
Also, the storming of the Capitol in January 2021 by violent supporters of the outgoing president, Donald Trump, ensured that Biden’s ascension to power later that month took place at a time when American democracy appeared to be in peril.
Connecting with the 47% of the public who had voted for his opponent was always going to be difficult – not least as the election outcome was – and still is – contested by many influential officeholders.
Bearing this tumultuous start in mind, there are some factors in particular that may help to explain where Biden has found himself politically. The point at which his poll numbers crossed from positive to negative was just before the final withdrawal date for US troops from Afghanistan in late August 2021.
While the president’s position on America’s presence in the region was no secret – and most of the public were in favour of bringing the troops home – the bloody and chaotic reality of how this played caused shock both at home and abroad.
In the ensuing weeks, Biden’s poll numbers continued to slide. But Afghanistan was not the only source of voter dismay. Despite campaign-trail promises and concerted presidential efforts to get COVID under control, the pandemic has raged on. The public health and economic toll have remained substantial as a hefty 40% of the population (aged 12 and over) have not yet been vaccinated.
Some Americans may never get on board with the science. One route to surmount this obstacle was to introduce vaccine mandates for federal workers, associated contractors and employees of large companies. Such a solution brought its own set of problems, as government mandates do not sit well with Americans.
Most unfortunately for the president, and arguably through no fault of his, COVID is a polarising issue. It has become possible to find out a person’s political leanings based on their adherence – or lack thereof – to wearing a mask.
Pandemic partisanship has allowed Biden’s opponents to make political hay with the situation. After 22 months of disruption, it is easy for voters to forget that COVID began and rapidly spiralled out of control during the Trump presidency. His was an administration that showed zero interest in planning for distant risk. As a result, his successor inherited a monumentally challenging public health crisis.
This has been continually exacerbated by pushback from various opponents keen to score political points with their conservative base. Governors in some Republican states, for example, have rejected Biden’s vaccine policies, refusing to implement mandatory vaccinations or testing.
The result is a continuing pandemic, fearful citizens, and the ongoing politicisation of a public health emergency. Additionally, the disappointing economic recovery is damaging to the president as the anticipated bounce-back has to date not materialised sufficiently to turn the tide of unemployment and rising inflation.
Added to the president’s political headaches are problems in his own party. Democrat family squabbles are nothing new, but Biden has to spend precious political capital on reining in frisky progressives while dealing with the disproportionate influence of specific conservative individuals. West Virginia Senate representative Joe Manchin showed his power in the 50/50 deadlocked Senate by challenging the central tenet of Biden’s climate agenda, on the eve of the COP26 summit in Glasgow. The result was a US president heading to a crucial climate conference with an agenda undermined by a recalcitrant member of his own party.
Presenting as a moderate Democrat was always going to bring challenges for Biden. On one level, it is a sensible strategy as traditionally, voters tend to veer to the centre at general election time. Clearly many did, as the centrist Democrat won with 51% of the vote. However, the flipside of such an approach is that the middle-of-the-road position may satisfy nobody.
Hence, in his early days in office, Biden tacked to the left of his traditional position on certain issues including climate, immigration and committing to trillions in expenditure, which pleased progressives and showed, however fleeting, party unity.
The political challenges facing Biden remain daunting. He leads a deeply divided country that has been unable to unite in a crisis. Fake news abounds and undermines civil discourse. It is difficult to imagine how any president might fare well in the polls under such circumstances. A less centrist leader that Biden could make the situation worse. His 51% disapproval rating still equates with 43% approval. Under the circumstances, this constitutes a political glass that is (almost) half full. But it will need to be fuller if he really does plan to run in 2024.