Opinion

Can Biden break out of the presidential approval trap?

Public opinion at the presidential level is now largely unresponsive to events

Joe Biden just completed a very successful foreign trip. His meetings with world leaders at the G7 summit in the U.K. and with NATO allies in Belgium went smoothly, with important issues on the agenda and amity the order of the day. Meanwhile, his sober, cordial, but firm meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Geneva went about as well as anyone could have hoped.

For those Americans who cringed and winced their way through the Trump presidency, these events were a hugely reassuring return to form for the United States — meaning, above all, a return to normalcy — after four years of unpresidential idiocy, corruption, and recklessness. That's certainly how Biden's trip has been covered in the mainstream press.

But will it make any difference to Biden's political support at home? Will we see any sign that the American people collectively favor such a reversion to the mean from Trump's outlier presidency? I doubt it. Because one of the many strange consequences of intense polarization, negative partisanship, and media self-segregation is that public opinion at the presidential level is now largely frozen and unresponsive to events. The question is whether there's anything Biden can do to break out of that dynamic and wear down those predisposed to disapprove of him — or if his support is fated to remain fixed in place for the rest of his presidency.

The Trump presidency may have felt like a rollercoaster, but by historic standards his approval ratings were as smooth as a proverbial drive across the Kansas countryside. According to FiveThirtyEight's aggregation of polls, he spent most of his first year in the doldrums between 36 and 38 percent approval. After that, he tended to float, with only occasional peaks and valleys, between 41 and 43 percent. That's quite steady.

But were the raw numbers accurate? Persistent polling errors that tended systematically to undercount Republicans throughout the Trump era suggest that the president's approval might have been a few points higher than the reported levels — perhaps 40-42 for the first year and 45-47 through the remaining three years. The fact that Trump managed to win 46 percent of the vote in 2016 and 47 percent in 2020 would seem to point in that direction. But whatever the case, Trump's ratings never moved very much. He remained solidly under 50 percent for the entirety of his presidency, and he never approached the painful lows reached by George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, or Richard Nixon.  

So far, at least, Biden is proving to be even more stable than Trump. He began his presidency at 53 percent, he's currently at his low of 51.9, and he's gotten as high as 55.1. That's quite a narrow range in comparison with every president from Harry Truman through Barack Obama, especially if it lasts. Truman's approval peaked at 87 percent and sank to a low of 22 percent. Lyndon Johnson ranged from just under 80 percent to the mid-30s. Ronald Reagan peaked at 68 percent and fell as low as 35. Bill Clinton floated between 71 and 40 percent. Obama hit 65 percent in the opening weeks of his presidency but spent much of it below 50 percent, with a low just under 41 percent.

The stability of Trump and, so far, Biden is distinctive and almost certainly a function of our polarized and siloed political environment. Democrats support the Democrat, Republicans support the Republican, and most independents are basically Democrats or Republicans in all but name, telling pollsters the same thing as those less hesitant to label themselves in partisan terms. Moreover, each side has its own media ecosystem that reinforces its own narrative, with built-in, automatic spin, making it exceedingly difficult for presidential actions or outside events to change the dynamic and bring those on one side over to the other.

Now, of course the electorate isn't completely frozen in place. In 2016, Trump did appeal to and succeed in re-sorting the electorate in a handful of crucial states in the upper Midwest. He also marginally added to his electoral coalition between 2016 and 2020 in ways that could prove fateful going forward. (We'll learn more about this in 2022 and 2024.) And Biden did manage to significantly increase his vote share over Hillary Clinton's in 2016 by being a more effective vehicle for anti-Trump sentiment, which was very strong in a country where well over 50 percent disapproved of the Republican's performance for the entirety of his presidency.

But these shifts were mostly modest in size, with their outsized effects mainly a function of how closely divided we are as a country. In such circumstances, tiny changes can have enormous consequences. Had just 77,000 votes shifted to Clinton in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin in 2016, the Democrat would have prevailed. Four years later, if roughly 45,000 votes had gone to Trump instead of Biden in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, the Electoral College would have been tied 269-269, throwing the election to the House of Representatives, where Republicans would have been empowered by the Constitution to decide the outcome.

This is trench warfare, a battle of attrition over inches of territory. Joe Biden is doing his best to burst out of it, to act like more than a president of the Democratic States of America. But that requires swimming against incredibly powerful countercurrents. So far there's no sign at all that he's making headway.

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