KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— As Joe Biden marks a year in office, he has found himself in a perilous position, and there are no obvious signs of improvement.
— Among Biden’s challenges is an apparently weakened position among nonwhite voters as well as younger voters, two immensely important pillars of the Democratic coalition.
— Inflation has re-emerged as an important problem for what appears to be the first time in decades, and Biden has work to do to persuade the public that he’s taking it seriously.
A bleak picture for Biden as first year ends
As we mark the first anniversary of President Joe Biden taking office, his first year has been defined in no small part by the persistence of a problem he promised to solve — the pandemic — and the emergence of a problem he was slow to recognize — inflation. While there are all sorts of other things that have transpired during Biden’s first year in office, his difficulties with these two problems — with the always politically-dicey challenge of high gas prices acting as a subset of the larger inflation issue — likely explain a good deal about Americans’ broadly negative assessments of his presidency.
What follows are 5 warning signs for Biden (and Democrats more broadly) having to do with how the public is perceiving his presidency.
1. Biden’s overall job approval has stagnated
Biden’s job approval has been largely stable, but also weak, for the past few months.
In the 2 nationally-followed polling averages, RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight, Biden’s disapproval has been consistently over 50% since October. His approval has also been under 45% in both averages since around the same time. While there is variation from poll to poll and day to day, Biden is sitting at an approval in the low 40s and a disapproval in the low 50s. The averages differ in that they include different polls, and FiveThirtyEight models the numbers so that there is less variation over time, while RealClearPolitics is a straight average of the most recent polls (so the latter bounces around a bit more). But the two averages and the individual pollsters that power them have been telling a fairly consistent story for the past few months. It’s possible that Biden’s average numbers will dip in the coming days — there may be some fresh anniversary polling that comes out after we publish this (early Thursday). For instance, Gallup found Biden at a 40%/56% spread in a poll released Tuesday, worse than the averages.
What should be disconcerting to the White House is that a year into Biden’s presidency, his numbers do not look that much different from those of the man he defeated in 2020, Donald Trump, at the same time of his presidency. Trump’s overall numbers were a little bit worse at this time 4 years ago — roughly 40% approve/55% disapprove in both averages — but they improved a bit during 2018 to about where Biden is now.
One of the hallmarks of Trump’s approval polling was that strong disapproval of his job performance typically was significantly higher than strong approval. The same is true for Biden.
Let’s look at a couple of polls from the same pollster, conducted almost exactly 4 years apart. Economist/YouGov found Trump’s approval rating at 42% approve/52% disapprove in a poll conducted from Jan. 14-16, 2018. That included 21% strongly approving of his performance, and 40% strongly disapproving. A poll of Biden’s approval from Economist/YouGov conducted Jan. 15-18, 2022 is not much different: Biden’s approval/disapproval split is 39%/51%, with strong approval at 15% and strong disapproval at 38%. Similar trends show up in other polls.
Anecdotally, Biden seemed to have less passionate supporters than Trump but inspired less intense animus among his opponents than his predecessor. But the numbers suggest Trump and Biden are viewed similarly at the year one mark, with strong opposition outstripping strong support.
2. Biden is having trouble with key subgroups
According an analysis from the Democratic data firm Catalist, as well as exit polls and granular precinct-level analysis, Joe Biden performed worse with nonwhite voters in 2020 compared to Hillary Clinton’s showing in 2016. Ruy Teixeira, a Democratic electoral demographics expert whom we deeply respect, has sounded the alarm bells for his party in recent items for the publication the Liberal Patriot analyzing Democratic problems with both Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans.
Broadly speaking, Biden’s numbers with people of color appear to be weak across the board. Let’s put this in some perspective, first.
There were 2 major exit polls of the 2020 election. One was from Edison Research on behalf of several major news organizations. The other was from NORC at the University of Chicago on behalf of the Associated Press and Fox News. While they differed somewhat in their findings, they each found that Biden won a little more than 70% of the vote among voters of color (defined here as those who do not identify as non-Hispanic white), while Biden won a bit over 40% of the white vote.
Compare that to what some polls are telling us about how Biden is viewed now. Reuters/Ipsos finds Biden with a 45% approve/50% disapprove split, a bit better than the averages. That poll splits respondents into white and nonwhite groups: Biden’s approval split with white adults is 41%/54%, not that different from the white vote overall in 2020. But his approval with nonwhites is just 52%/42% — still positive overall but a steep drop from what the exit polls told us about his level of electoral support with the nonwhite voting bloc in 2020.
This has some implications for Democrats if weaker Biden approval among nonwhite voters translates into weaker electoral performance and/or turnout (Democrats often fret about nonwhite turnout in non-presidential election years anyway). For instance, we rate 3 Democratic-held Senate seats as Toss-ups: Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada. The electorates in all 3 of these states have very important nonwhite voting blocs.
Though younger voters tend to turn out at lower rates than seniors, Democrats were aided in the 2018 midterms by a relatively engaged youth bloc. But after a year in office, Biden’s standing with the 18 to 29 year-old demographic has weakened. In December, the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School put the president’s approval spread at 46%/51% with voters under 30. According to the estimates from Catalist, Biden carried that group with 62% in 2020. To be sure, Harvard found Trump’s favorables with younger voters are at a horrid 30%/63% spread, and it’s easy to see Biden winning the youth vote handily in a rematch — but that is less relevant for 2022’s elections, as Democrats will not have the luxury of running against an unpopular Trump, although the former president may be active on the campaign trail.
3. Republicans are gaining strength
Immediately after the 2020 election, it may have seemed far-fetched to suggest that, just a year later, Democrats would be struggling in states that Biden had just carried by double-digits — but such was the case in 2021. Though Democrats started the cycle as favorites to hold the governorships of both New Jersey and Virginia, the party’s national image had deteriorated to the point where they claimed only a 51% majority in the former and lost the latter. True, gubernatorial races do not have entirely the same dynamics as federal elections, but it was telling that the Democrats’ showing in both contests represented a roughly 12-point decline from what Biden received in 2020.
Partisan identification, though also not a perfect barometer, can also be instructive. According to Gallup’s quarterly tracking poll, Democrats entered 2021 with a 49%-40% identification edge (this includes both those who identify with one of the two major parties or those who indicate a leaned preference even as they identify as independent). By the third quarter of 2021, the parties were about even, and Republicans ended the year with a 47%-42% advantage. Charles Franklin, a pollster at the Marquette University Law School, compiled tracking polls from 3 other pollsters, and all showed erosion for Democratic identification compared to Republican identification last year.
Since mid-November, Republicans have been ahead in the House generic ballot averages, although their aggregate advantage has seldom been by more than a few points — the GOP’s lead was 46%-42% at its highest point in RealClearPolitics’s tracker while FiveThirtyEight has generally shown a tighter scenario.
Throughout most of 2017, as Trump’s approval rating was firmly in negative territory, Democrats usually posted mid-to-high single-digit generic ballot leads. In Biden’s case, it seems to have taken some time for anti-Democratic sentiments to manifest themselves down the ballot: when Republicans overtook them in November, Biden’s own numbers had already been underwater since late August (and it is not uncommon, historically, for the generic ballot to understate Republican strength, particularly earlier in the cycle). Regardless, and as of this writing, Democrats earn a 42% share in generic ballot aggregates — this matches the president’s approval rating almost exactly. If that number holds (or sinks), it would almost certainly doom the current Democratic majority in Congress.
Though every member of Congress will leave eventually, the timing of retirements is often not coincidental. In 2018, the House Republican conference, which had been in the majority since the 2010 elections, suffered from a spate of retirements, and they had to defend roughly double the number of open seats that cycle compared to Democrats. The Republican exodus foreshadowed their rough night in November. This trend has been reversed in 2022, as Democrats have currently suffered about double the number of retirements as Republicans have so far.
While a few long-serving Democrats veterans are departing, it may be telling that some Democrats who received more favorable seats in redistricting are still opting to retire. In a majoritarian body like the House, the prospect of serving in the minority may not be appealing.
Democrats do have incumbents defending all of their most vulnerable Senate seats — but given the chamber’s current composition, and even if Biden’s approval ratings rise noticeably, Democrats would still have little room for error.
4. Inflation has led to political turbulence in the past…
Over the weekend, a new CBS News/YouGov poll pegged the public’s approval of Biden’s handling of an emerging, pressing problem — inflation — at just 30%, well below his overall approval rating in the poll (44%). The Consumer Price Index increased 7% in 2021, the biggest increase since 1982 — a finding that generated considerable news coverage over the past week.
That historical note underscores the reality that inflation has not been a major issue in American politics for a long time. Inflation was a persistent problem in the 1970s and early 1980s, with important impacts on 4 presidencies. Richard Nixon imposed wage and price controls to combat inflation in 1971, but inflation was still a problem when Gerald Ford took over for Nixon in 1974. Ford exhorted the nation to “Whip Inflation Now” and promoted “WIN” buttons in asking Americans to fight inflation through their own efforts (it didn’t work). The term “stagflation” — low growth paired with price increases — is historically yoked to Jimmy Carter’s presidency, though it was a problem before he took office, too. And the high inflation of the early 1980s contributed to a challenging electoral environment for Republicans in Ronald Reagan’s first midterm in 1982. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, appointed by Carter and re-appointed by Reagan, is generally credited with breaking the inflation cycle by imposing high interest rates.
But we’re not used to inflation being as prominent in American politics, in large part because inflation just has not been that significant recently. The reemergence of that issue is another headache for the Biden White House and Democrats, who were slow to come around to the issue’s importance. One Democrat who does seem immensely concerned with inflation is Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who has used the issue as at least a partial explanation as to why he is hesitant to support the president’s “Build Back Better” social spending package. Pumping more dollars into the economy could only exacerbate the inflation problem, Manchin has suggested.
5. … and the public sees an administration not focused on its top concerns
Whether one agrees with Manchin or not, the public does seem to believe that the Biden White House’s focus — which in recent weeks has been mainly on either elections-related legislation or BBB — is not on the issues it is most concerned about, including inflation. In the CBS News/YouGov poll cited above, just 33% of respondents said that Biden/the Democrats are focusing on issues they care a lot about, and 65% said that the Biden administration is not focused enough on inflation as an issue.
In comparing Biden’s presidency so far to Barack Obama’s, both Democrats saw major bipartisan legislation pass in their first year: in Biden’s case, it was his infrastructure package, while 3 Republicans in the Senate backed Obama’s $787 billion stimulus plan. But later in 2009, Democrats’ focus turned to healthcare reform. While this was a longtime goal of the Democratic Party, voters often did not list healthcare as the nation’s most pressing issue. So as the Affordable Care Act passed along party lines, Democrats seemed to spend their most valuable political capital on an issue that took a backseat to the economy in the minds of many voters — and this became Republicans’ message in their (very successful) midterm.
After negotiations stalled on Build Back Better, congressional Democrats are beginning the year with a focus on voting rights — they have also vowed that they have not given up on the former. But both items face uphill battles and are perceived as more partisan than other legislation that passed Congress last year. Republicans, meanwhile, will likely maintain that the administration is more focused on placating Democratic partisans than on curbing inflation or tending to other national priorities.
Re-orienting his and Democrats’ agenda on these issues could be helpful to Biden, but that is much easier said than done.