Last week, President Biden’s agenda took a big step forward with the U.S. Senate’s overwhelmingly bipartisan vote to pass his $1.1 trillion infrastructure package. This first step toward a deal — the House of Representatives still must pass it — couldn’t come at a better time for Biden, either, as the delta variant of the coronavirus has led to a surge in cases, throwing much of the economic recovery of the past few months into jeopardy. There is also the collapse of Afghanistan’s government Biden must now contend with as he oversees the withdrawal of America’s military presences in the country.
It’s too soon to know how Biden’s handling of Afghanistan will affect his approval rating, but approval of his handling of the pandemic, which has hovered around the low 60s for much of his presidency, has already taken a hit. Now only 55 percent of Americans approve of the job he is doing, according to FiveThirtyEight’s coronavirus presidential approval tracker.
This downturn in how Americans think Biden is handling the pandemic also seems to be at least somewhat connected to the recent decline in his overall approval rating, which has fallen to about 50 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, the lowest point so far in his eight months in office.
What to make of Biden’s job approval ticking downward?
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Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that the recent slide in Biden’s approval is still relatively small, as his average approval rating has fallen from about 52 percent over the course of July to 50 percent now. And that’s not that unusual given our current hyperpolarized political environment; opinions of the president are now largely baked in so that a president’s ratings tend to hover within a narrow range of outcomes. We don’t know the range in which Biden’s approval will ultimately settle, but if the past two presidents are any indication, it’ll be a narrow one: Donald Trump’s approval mostly hovered between 40 and 45 percent during his presidency, while Barack Obama’s approval tended to fall between 45 and 50 percent. In that sense, Biden’s current approval rating is perfectly normal.
It’s also possible this current decline could be temporary, given the role the delta variant has played in driving Biden’s overall numbers down. Approval of Biden’s handling of the coronavirus has seen the largest decline in the past few weeks, although his numbers on some other issues have also slipped slightly, too. To be clear, he still polls better on COVID-19 than on other issues, like crime and immigration. But among Republicans and independents, where this has been one of his strongest issues, his approval has taken a particularly large hit in recent weeks. Since mid-July, his coronavirus approval numbers among independents have declined from the high 50s to the low 50s, and among Republicans, his numbers have sagged from the low 30s to the low 20s. (Democrats’ attitudes on Biden’s handling of the coronavirus have ticked down a hair, from the low 90s to high 80s.)
That said, there are also some reasons to think that this slip in Biden’s overall approval rating might not be a blip.
The biggest reason is that independents may be souring on Biden — and it’s not clear that it’s just his handling of the coronavirus driving it. Biden’s ratings among independents have fallen in recent weeks — a sample of polls conducted since early July by Morning Consult, The Economist/YouGov and Ipsos suggests Biden’s approval with this group has fallen by an average of 2 to 4 percentage points in recent weeks. But Biden had already been slowly losing ground among independents. For instance, Biden’s approval among independent voters in Morning Consult’s polling has trended downward since he took office, from around the low 50s to the low 40s. That’s a very slow descent over the past eight months, but it’s also a trend that predates the surge in American cases of the delta variant.
It’s also possible that concerns about the economy have played a role in Biden’s decline. Recent surveys suggest Americans are particularly worried about inflation, for instance, which has shot up in recent months. In fact, about one-third of registered voters named inflation as their top economic concern in an early August survey by The Hill/HarrisX, and 86 percent of Americans told CNBC/Hart Research/Public Opinion Strategies in late July that they’d taken at least one action to combat the rise in prices, such as reducing their spending on discretionary items or saving less money. Biden’s approval on his handling of the economy has ticked down slightly in recent surveys, too, including a Fox News poll last week that found approval of his handling of the economy at 47 percent, down from 51 percent in June.
Now, it’s true that these economic concerns are at least partly tied to the economic uncertainty caused by the coronavirus, but there are also some indications that Americans might be growing leery of large government expenditures. A late July Politico/Morning Consult survey found, for instance, that slightly more registered voters (59 percent) thought the Biden’s administration’s policies were very or somewhat responsible for the 13-year high in inflation than America’s return to pre-pandemic behaviors (53 percent). While Republicans were the biggest driver of this difference — 82 percent blamed the administration compared to 39 percent who blamed the reopening process — independents were also more likely to say the Biden team’s policies were responsible, 58 percent to 47 percent.
This is not to say that Biden’s policies are unpopular, however. The coronavirus stimulus package passed in March had the support of roughly two-thirds of Americans. And that recent Fox News survey found 62 percent of registered voters also backed the bipartisan infrastructure deal, with 56 percent even saying they supported the Democrats’ still-in-progress $3.5 trillion spending plan.
Still, Democrats’ spending plans do risk sparking a backlash, as FiveThirtyEight contributor Daniel Cox argued in May. Cox noted that last September a record-high share of Americans — 54 percent — told Gallup the government should do more to solve the country’s problems, compared with 41 percent of Americans who felt the government was doing too much. But now more recent polling suggests support for government intervention has already slipped. Only 44 percent told Fox News that they preferred the federal government “lend them a hand,” compared to 57 percent who said the same in August 2020.
It’s also possible that the situation in Afghanistan could take a further toll on Biden’s approval ratings — it’s just too soon to say at this point. But if Biden’s approval decline is mainly tied to reactions to the delta variant surge, which could abate before too long, that could point to a possible silver lining for Biden. Then again, there could be more substantial, long-lasting cracks in his support, perhaps tied to his administration’s big spending ways.
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