All presidents inevitably encounter serious challenges, when events and circumstances go badly, whether controllable by that president and administration or not, that can affect that president’s standings with the public and even trajectory of the balance of the administration. Whether the president is fairly placed or not is not terribly important. As President Kennedy famously said, “life is unfair.”
No one can know whether President Biden will get re-elected in 2024 or even if he will seek a second term. Similarly, in my mind, strong predictions of what will happen in next year’s midterm elections, mostly in the prevue of fools, partisan cheerleaders, or both. But the wafer-thin, five-seat edge in the House and their paper-thin, one-seat margin in the Senate are knowable, as is the historic pattern of midterm elections for parties holding the White House.
Biden has averaged 54 percent in the eight Gallup Polls conducted since he took office in January, the most recent, conducted in early August, 49 percent. Given the tumultuous last few weeks and months, it is fair to ask whether and how Biden’s standing with Americans will be affected. It is instructive to look at what happened when previous presidents encountered similarly treacherous waters, how that impacted their job approval ratings, for clues as to what may happen with Biden’s.
Below are four possible scenarios of where Biden's approval ratings could go, should his standing erode, warranted or not.
This analysis first looks at what happened to the approval ratings of each of Biden’s seven immediate predecessors when they hit tough spots, focusing on three component groups: that President’s own, fellow party members, those in the opposition party and among those who consider themselves independents. More emphasis is placed on Biden’s predecessors over the last 30 years. Second, where Biden’s approval ratings have been among each of those three groups since taking office, particularly where they were in early August. The Gallup Organization, having asked the presidential job approval rating 76 years ago, measuring Truman’s approval only two months into his presidency, is used as there are no other comparable historic yardsticks that allow for direct comparison.
Overall Biden Approval
Biden’s early August approval rating among all adults of 49 percent was:
- 15 points above Trump’s low water mark of 34 percent
- 11 points better than Obama’s low ebb of 38 percent
- 25 points better than George W. Bush’s worst level of 25 percent.
Biden Approval by Party ID
Biden peaks and valleys vs. past presidents
Among fellow party members, for Biden among Democrats, was a 93 percent approval rating. Among their fellow party members:
- The lowest point for Trump among his fellow Republicans was 16 points below Biden’s point in early August, 77 percent, compared to Biden’s 93 percent in his own party.
- Obama’s lowest point with Democrats was 72 percent, 21 points below where Biden was in early August.
- George W. Bush’s lowest point among Republicans was 55 percent, 38 points below Biden’s early August 49 percent.
Looking across the proverbial party aisle, Biden is already at rock bottom so he has little if any room to drop among Republicans. Biden’s early August seven percent approval from those in the opposite party:
- Is five points higher than Trump’s two percent among Democrats at his low point,
- One point better than Obama’s six percent low among Republicans.
- But 12 points worse than George W. Bush’s 19 percent, one sign of how much more partisan things have become in the 12 years since he left office.
In some, Biden has little to lose among Republicans.
It is among independents, the most fickle and malleable of voters, who by their very nature are the most distrustful of parties and politicians and follow current events, particularly politics less than others, that is most important.
Biden’s 43 percent approval among independents is also match’s his lowest point so far. But that Biden low point so far of 43 percent is
- 14 points above Trump’s low of 29 percent,
- 12 points better than Obama’s low of 31 percent
- Obama 12 points better than Obama’s low of 31 percent and
- 24 points better than George W. Bush’s low of 19 percent.
In other words, Biden still has plenty of room to drop among independents.
The Four Scenarios
- Scenario A is Something of a best-case scenario for Biden and, by extension Democrats, a minimal level of damage to Biden’s standing, with his approval rating dropping seven points from 49 percent in August, to 42 percent. It is unlikely that the impact will be this small.
- Scenario B would look at a somewhat greater, but moderate decline in Biden’s approval numbers, down 11 points from early August from 49 to 38 percent.
- Scenario C would suggest a significant drop of 15 points, from 49 percent down to a 34 percent approval rating.
- Scenario D would look at something of a worst case for Biden, a catastrophic plummet of 19 points, from 49 to 30 percent. This is probably worse than what will end up happening.
Reviewing the historical data (more below) and scenarios with a number of top pollsters and strategists from both parties to get their insights on this subject, it was interesting that two Republican pollsters expressed skepticism that Biden could drop as far among independents as the worst-case scenario suggested.
But others thought it equally unlikely is that Biden would drop among those independents as few as the best case scenario proposed.
This would suggest that for those who don’t have firmly held views on this subject, scenarios “B” and “C” are more probable than either “A” or “D.”
What to make of the numbers
New presidencies usually begin with a great deal of hope and promise even if they do inherit a panoply of problems and situations from their predecessors.
Most Americans, at least initially, genuinely want a new president to succeed and thus, the country to benefit.
But as a president gets deeper into their term in office, making decisions and taking, or not taking, action on various matters, the honeymoon begins to come to an end. As will be discussed below, tribalism has both abbreviated and flattened these honeymoons in recent years.
Gradually, that president, and by extension, a president’s party, begin to have ownership of the status quo and is held accountable for things that go wrong, whether it is their fault or not.To the extent that a president’s party also holds majorities in the House and Senate the ability to shift blame elsewhere or escape it is practically non-existent.
Partisanship and the (almost) end of presidential honeymoons
The notable exception to this hope and promise for a newly sworn-in president are the members of the opposition party. Most of them feel some combination of disappointment and anger from the loss, though now we can add denial that there was a loss to the list of reactions. The end result is that those in an opposition party tend to be more highly motivated in midterm elections, some even seeking revenge for what happened two years before, which helps explain the tendency for the ‘out’ party to enjoy higher voter turnout levels than a more complacent party in power.
Heightened levels of party loyalty and passion over the last 30 years has changed the trajectories of presidents going through good times and bad. Those who consider themselves Democrats, for example, are far less likely to defect and support a Republican candidate or even express approval of a Republican president, than was the case through the 1980s. Conversely, Republicans are loath to support or approve any Democrat. The near unanimity that usually exists within each party has effectively constructed floors and ceilings in presidential ratings, the strong support among fellow party members establishing a floor that is hard to drop below, but equally adamant opposition from the other party creates an equally impenetrable ceiling. This also applies to support at election time. The “I vote the person, not the party,” to the extent that it was ever true, is far less so now, even among independents, who more and more, see their vote for president or Congress as making a statement more than choosing between two individuals. The brands of individual candidates mean far less than ever before.
Exceptions can occur but only under the most extraordinary of circumstances. In 1991, after a 35-nation coalition assembled by President George H.W. Bush decisively won the First Persian Gulf War in less than six weeks, his job approval rating in the Gallup Poll soared to 89 percent, 88 percent of independents, 97 percent among Republicans and even 82 percent among Democrats, the opposition party. His son, President George W. Bush saw a similar spike in his ratings in both a sign of national unity at a time of crisis but also strong positive response to his words three days after the attack, standing amid the rubble, “I can hear you! I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” That Bush’s approval rating reached a presidential polling record high of 90 percent, 84 percent with Democrats, 89 percent among independents and 98 percent of Republicans is quite something. But those were the notable exceptions to the rule. And, in both cases, the extreme partisanship eventually came back with a vengeance.
This heightened partisanship with its higher floors and lower ceilings, along with an increased level of skepticism and even cynicism among independents has resulted in shorter, more flattened honeymoon periods for new presidents.
Midterm elections aren’t about studied evaluations of the strengths and weaknesses of the two major parties, their policies or their leaders. Midterms are less about a “choice” between two parties than a referenda on the incumbent president. Basically, it is a time for voters to decide whether to “stay the course,” or if it is, “time for a change?” When things go awry on a president’s watch, in a midterm election, it is the ruling party that usually pays the price, fair or not.
The rapidity of the fall of Afghanistan and the less-than-decorous exit from that war-torn country that followed, the terrible turn for the worse of the Coronavirus pandemic and potential economic consequences of even a partial lockdown are all things that should make Democrats very nervous, regardless of the circumstances and or who they believe is truly at fault. To the extent that things are good, that helps a party in power, but to the extent that things are not good, that should be very worrisome.
Midterm elections almost always go badly for a president’s party in the House and far more often than not, in the Senate as well.
With Democrats currently controlling, at least theoretically, all three political elements of the Federal government, the current Democratic majorities of one seat in the Senate and effectively five in the House are so narrow as to make their control of Congress extremely precarious. In short, Democrats cannot afford anything to go wrong on their watch.
Besides accountability or being a referendum, there is a second reason why midterm elections usually go badly for the party holding the White House, particularly if that same party has just taken over one or both chambers in Congress. Sadly, the strongest emotions in politics are anger, hate and fear, not affection, satisfaction, or gratitude. A voter that is angry, hates or fears a candidate or party, is more motivated and more likely to vote than one that likes or loves a candidate, feels comfortable (and perhaps complacent) or appreciates the good work that an officeholder has done or a candidate would be expected to do. Voters whose party has lost a presidential election or perhaps control of Congress two years earlier tend to be more motivated, more likely to vote than one that is glad that their party did win. If having lost an election is such a strong motivator, one can only guess what the belief, however mistaken it may be, that an election has been stolen is to an increased interest in voting.
The increased intensity of political emotions that has built up has made this whole motivation point very important.
Having had two consecutive elections with record-high voter turnout, 2018 the highest midterm participation rate since 1918, 2020 turnout the highest presidential turnout since 1900, with Trump the primary motivator for both sides, there is a danger that the Trump Lovers will be more motivated in 2022, voting at a higher level than the Trump Loathers.
Several caveats are important to keep in mind. The first is time.
Pollsters typically ask respondents, “if the election were held today, for whom would you support.” But the midterm election is not today. As of August 31, there are 434 days between now and the midterm election.
The words of two former British Prime Ministers come to mind. Harold Macmillan, a Conservative who served as Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963 was asked by a reporter what was the greatest challenge to his administration? Macmillan replied, “Events, my dear boy, events.” Taking over 10 Downing Street one year after Macmillan was Harold Wilson (1964-70 and 1974-76) from the Labour Party, who famously said that “a week is a long time in politics.”
Afghanistan? Do Americans vote on foreign policy issues?
Do Americans vote on foreign policy issues? Generally speaking, the answer is no, people tend to be more attuned to “big things,” as one pollster said, things that really matter directly to voters, their families, friends, neighbors and communities. Historically Americans have been said to “vote their pocketbooks,” for what they perceive to be their own economic self-interest. The rise of culture wars and identity politics have diminished the impact of the economy, but it is hardly a non-factor.
But it may be a mistake to view developments in Afghanistan and the political impact of it as a foreign policy issue. The greatest danger for Biden is not that many Americans will hold his decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan against him, indeed a great many agree with the decision to pull out. While there once was a time when the Afghanistan war could have had an outcome for the U.S. that could credibly be called a success, that was probably 15 or so years ago. This a complicated issue with many, sometimes conflicted emotions and viewpoints. Many, particularly veterans and their families, who fear or feel that pulling out of the country dishonors the thousands of brave Americans who sacrificed lives, limbs, their physical and mental health, in the conflict. But others ask whether sacrificing more lives, limbs and the health of more actually honor those who have already sacrificed so much? Not to mention the $2 trillion is cost to American taxpayers, for a cause that was once and could have been legitimately defended as “the good war.”
The danger to Biden, and by extension to his party and their precarious majorities in Congress is not the decision, but the execution. Will these recent events cast doubt on Biden and his administration’s judgment and competence? Fingers will be pointed at the President, his staff and entire administration, at military, diplomatic and intelligence officials, particularly over misjudging the capabilities and commitment of the Afghan government and its military, both of which had a reputation for corruption and acting in bad faith.
To the extent that Americans look at the execution of the pull out, will they focus on the appearance that the Biden Administration was caught flat-footed, expecting that the Afghan Government and it’s army could last for months and perhaps a year or two, as we were told, when it turned out to be just hours and days. That appeared to lead to a lack of urgency until it was too late, simply not enough time to get all Americans out, to get out the interpreters and others that had been so essential to the U.S. presence there and whose lives and those of their families would be in danger if the Taliban took over. Then there was the billions of dollars worth of equipment that was left behind, much fully operable, leaving the Taliban Government to be one of the better militaries around. There was not enough time to destroy it all.
Which might Biden and his Administration be judged on, the first part that was executed so badly or the very last stage that got a lot done in a very short period of time?
It is one thing to have doubts about abilities among those in the opposite party and ideology, but when it spills out into the middle and to a president’s own party, it becomes a real problem. In this case, if things deteriorate, Democrats in competitive states and districts will have to weigh the risk supporting him on tough votes, and often will seek to put distance between themselves and Biden’s administration. Republican members who might otherwise be tempted to side with him when they are in agreement, will be less willing to take the risk of alienating the GOP base and with it a primary election loss.
Even some Democrats worry that this turn of events undercuts the entire premise of the Biden campaign and presidency. Arguably one of Biden’s strengths in his challenge to then-President Trump was his near half-century of experience in governing, the knowledge accumulated over 36 years in the Senate, 33 years of those as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee including a time as Chairman of that committee. His eight years as Vice President and reading the same President’s Daily Brief prepared by the intelligence community that Obama received each morning.
Biden sought to contrast himself with his predecessor by highlighting his experience in governing, his knowledge of the intricacies of both issues, process and the players. The message was that in a Biden White House as one top Democratic strategist put it, “there would be adults in the room.” This crisis, then, would seem to be right in his wheelhouse, playing to his strength.
When Americans lose confidence in a leader, beginning to question competence and judgement, that is a hard thing to regain. It is very hard to get that toothpaste back in the tube.
Part of the Japanese martial art of jiu jitsu is to turn an adversary's strength into a weakness. In politics that means targeting and undermining the strength of an opponent.
In the 2004 presidential election, it was the bravery and service of John Kerry, the only combat veteran in the race (and one decorated for valor for that matter), that the Bush campaign effectively (although not legitimately in my view) undermined.
There is also a different but related problem. Since early last year when Biden first emerged as the clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, then-President Trump, his campaign and allies quite openly suggested that, at best, Biden’s best years were behind him, and that he had mentally lost a step or two, some even openly saying that soon-to-be 78-year old was senile. In my mind that was then and is still not true, but these events fuel that narrative and anyone who even suspects that it may have some validity will be looking for confirmation, real or imagined.
Anything that significantly undermines strength amounts to an existential political threat. For a president, if they lose the confidence of the public, and other players, they have little to rely upon.
Republicans and conservatives have argued for some time that the media has been exceedingly generous to Biden and relieved that Trump is out of office. Do the events of the last few weeks change that, will the tone of coverage change, will reporters show more skepticism about the President’s words and actions than they have?
It should be pointed out that previous presidents had foreign policy disasters of roughly comparable or greater magnitude in their first term. Two of them went on to win re-election by wide margins. In October 1983 two terrorists said to be from the Islamic Jihad detonated truck bombs, one outside a U.S. Marine barracks, the incidents killed 307 people including 241 Americans. But, in the aftermath of this tragedy, Reagan’s approval rating dropped by just one point and 13 months later President Reagan was re-elected in a 49-state landslide.
Ten years, later, in October 1993, the firefight with the greatest loss of American military lives since Vietnam, occurred in the Somalian city of Mogadishu where a team of Army Rangers in country on a peacekeeping mission were caught in a 15-hour battle that left 18 Americans dead and 73 injured. The incident was later chronicled in the book and movie, “Blackhawk Down.”
Clinton’s overall Gallup job rating dropped six points, nine points in the second poll after the battle. But 13 months later, President Clinton was re-elected over Sen. Bob Dole by just over four percentage points, 51 to 47 percent, carrying 31 states, plus the District of Columbia.
Both incidents were tragic, but they did not result in fundamental questions of competence and judgment for either Reagan or Clinton. It remains to be seen if Biden is able to weather this foreign policy tragedy with similar results. The most astute Ron Brownstein addresses the impact of Afghanistan to perceptions of Biden’s competency in a recent analysis for CNN.
So there is no clear answer what lays ahead for Biden on this. Soon polls will be released that will indicate public attitudes once they have not only had a chance to read, watch and hear but also think about it and discuss it with others.
This analysis suggests that there is a legitimate risk to Biden and Democrats of a far greater plunge in his approval ratings, but that it is not at all certain that he will drop a large amount.
The underlying data
Gallup Presidential Approval Ratings: Peaks and Valleys for Carter thru Biden