(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Joe Biden’s approval ratings seem to have bottomed out for now, and may even be rising. According to the FiveThirtyEight estimate (based on adjusted averages of all the public-opinion polls), he’s up to 43.8% approval, which is 1.5 percentage points above his Dec. 2 low; his disapproval is at 50.6%, down from a 52.3% peak just before Thanksgiving. Random variation could account for some of that move, but it seems likely that Biden’s slide stopped right around the beginning of November, and that he has probably recovered a bit since then. He’s still, to be sure, below water. At least for now.
Biden also remains the least popular of the 14 polling-era presidents at this point, 330 days into his presidency, except for Donald Trump, who was dead last for most of his first year and close to last during most of his presidency. The good news for Biden is that he’s now closer to the tier ahead of him — Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and Harry Truman — than he is to Trump. Of course, all of those presidents saw their parties have terrible midterm elections, so it’s not entirely good news. Looked at yet another way: Only Trump, Ford and Bill Clinton reached lower than Biden’s 42.3% approval low during their first year in office.
That said, none of this will mean much if Biden runs for re-election. Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton, Reagan and Truman all dipped below where Biden is now at some point before being re-elected (in fact, every previous president in the polling era sunk to 41% approval or lower at some point except for John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower, while all of them but Trump and Ford spent at least a year above 50%). While Trump was always unpopular, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter had excellent approval ratings throughout their first years in office. All three were defeated. There’s simply no relationship between approval ratings and re-election until much later in a president’s first term.
The midterms, fewer than 11 months away, are a different story. The presidents who had relatively good midterm results — Kennedy in 1962, Clinton in 1998, Bush in 2002 — were all more popular than Biden has ever been and had been popular for a year or more before the elections. Could Biden rally back to the 52% approval that he had before he started slumping in late July? Sure. Clinton recovered some 20 percentage points from his first-year low to his second-year peak, although he then slumped again before the 1994 Republican landslide. If Biden can come close to that kind of comeback but maintain an approval rating over 50%, the Democrats will probably avoid a similar debacle. But for all we know, the current blip up could turn out to be a small interruption on the way to record lows.
One thing that probably has changed is that it’s less likely that Biden’s unpopularity in recent months will have important effects on the midterms if he does recover. It used to be the case that early-cycle weakness mattered a lot, because the party in trouble would withhold important resources. These days, however, money is both plentiful and easy to raise quickly; no candidate with a chance to win is going to be beaten because of early fundraising woes. And while in previous cycles I’d be writing about how important incumbent retirements and candidate recruitment could be, the truth is that candidates don’t matter nearly as much in these days of partisan polarization, and the incumbency advantage is just about gone.
If you’re wondering why Biden’s slump flattened out and seems to have perhaps reversed a bit, I can only speculate. But I’m willing to venture one guess. The price of gas at the pump is down a bit recently. Republicans have been pushing the idea that the best way to evaluate a president is the economy, and that the key to the economy is the inflation rate and that the way to judge the inflation rate is by the current rate of increase in gas prices. Perhaps that hasn’t affected Biden’s approval, but it seems to me that it’s not the safest long-term message, and it’s quite possibly helping the president now.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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