Why is Joe Biden so unpopular?

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Joe Biden with an illustration of a chart showing a downward-facing arrow.
Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images, Getty Images (3)

What’s happening

At this point in his term — about 910 days in — Joe Biden is the second-most-unpopular president in modern U.S. history. As of July 18, Biden’s average job-approval rating, according to the poll aggregators at FiveThirtyEight, is a paltry 39.1%; his average disapproval rating is 55.4%. That means his “net approval rating” is -16.3%, which is well “underwater,” as pollsters like to say.

Negative 16.3% is also really bad historically speaking. In fact, the only president with weaker numbers than Biden was Jimmy Carter, who hit -28.6% on day 910. At the time, just 29% of Americans approved of Carter’s performance on average, while 57.6% disapproved.

Why there’s debate

The U.S. was in much, much worse shape in 1979 — the year before Carter lost reelection to Ronald Reagan — than it is in 2023. Inflation had skyrocketed by 13.3% year-over-year; unemployment was stubbornly stuck around 6%; and the price of oil was in the process of doubling. Global shortages were so bad that Americans took to waiting in long lines — and occasionally punching each other — at their local gas stations.

In contrast, a gallon of gas today costs roughly 30% less than it did 12 months ago. At 3.6%, unemployment is on par with 50-year lows — and down by almost half since Biden took office. The U.S. economy added 4 million jobs over the past year. Inflation has cooled to 3% after peaking last summer at triple that rate. And America’s so-called misery index — a combination of unemployment and inflation — is lower now than it has been during 83% of all months since 1978. Recession fears are subsiding.

Meanwhile, as the Washington Monthly’s Bill Scher notes, illegal border crossings “have dropped by 70 percent in the last few weeks, according to the Department of Homeland Security, after Biden implemented a new border-management policy.” And “murder is down about 12 percent year-to-date in more than 90 cities that have released data for 2023, compared with data as of the same date in 2022,” according to crime data analyst Jeff Asher, writing in the Atlantic — a trend that could lead to “one of the largest annual percent changes in murder ever recorded.”

On top of that, Biden has delivered on several policy promises that poll pretty well with the public.

In the past, a president’s standing has tended to improve along with conditions in the country. Yet Biden’s numbers haven’t budged; since September 2022, his approval rating has remained mired around 40% while his disapproval rating has never broken out of the low to mid-50s.

The question is why. Is it something systemic — the way Americans are increasingly stuck in their own partisan media bubbles and unwilling to give presidents of the opposing party any credit? Is it the economy — the way certain indicators (such as real wages and the cost of services) have yet to fully recover even as the overall picture brightens?

Or is it Biden himself — his advanced age, his frequent gaffes, his ongoing family drama? And can the president turn things around in time for the 2024 election?

What’s next

Election season. Biden’s 2024 campaign spent a total of $1.1 million in the second quarter of this year, a “remarkably small amount that would put him behind several Democratic Senate candidates in terms of expenditures,” according to Politico. In comparison, Biden’s old boss Barack Obama spent about 11 times as much during the second quarter of 2011.

Biden, in other words, hasn’t really started selling himself to voters yet. Assuming the economy keeps improving, a national campaign — and the contrast it could create with the even-less-popular Trump, Biden’s likeliest GOP rival — might help the president become more popular over the next 16 months. In July 2011, Obama was underwater too; by Election Day 2012, his net approval rating had climbed to +5% or so.


Biden is unpopular because inflation pain is uniquely hard to shake

“One possibility is that, after enjoying largely stable prices for decades, Americans simply have little tolerance for inflation. Sure, their wages may have grown faster than prices since February 2020. But voters might be inclined to attribute their income gains to their own efforts, while blaming rising prices on the government’s mismanagement. They still have not adjusted psychologically to the jump in their grocery bills, and are irked each time they see the receipt and remember what things used to cost when Donald Trump was still president.” — Eric Levitz, New York magazine

Meanwhile, prices remain stubbornly high ‘where it counts’

“Although inflation has eased some, it hasn’t where it counts. Per the Wall Street Journal, prices ‘are stubbornly rising for what retail and food executives refer to as the center store,’ a euphemism for non-perishable staples from cereals to paper towels. In percentage terms, the cost of these goods is up by double digits across a variety of categories from just months or even weeks ago. And to judge by this report, many of the customers surveyed by Journal reporters went out of their way to note the tradeoffs they have had to make to stretch their dollars as far as possible. That’s an inconvenience that almost everyone feels and is liable to resent.” — Noah Rothman, National Review

Even if various indicators keep improving, it will take time for Americans to feel it

“Most Americans do not follow monthly inflation, crime, or border-crossing statistics. They experience inflation through more expensive bills, less abundant grocery purchases, and delayed big-ticket investments; crime through if-it-bleeds-it-leads local news broadcasts and major events like mass shootings; immigration through vivid images of people in migrant camps or the frequency with which they hear foreign languages spoken in their own communities. The positive statistics … need to be reflected over time in real-life experiences — and they need to persist until the moment voters decide how to vote.” — Ed Kilgore, New York magazine

Partisanship might have permanently changed how we grade presidents

“A survey question along the lines of, ‘Do you think economic conditions are good or bad?’ is answered more along the lines of, ‘Do you like the current president or not?’ In October 2020, just before President Trump lost re-election, Republicans' economic sentiment was 26 points higher than Democrats' in the University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey. In February 2021, after Biden took office, Republicans rated the economy 28 points worse. A similar pattern occurred between the parties around the 2016 and 2008 elections, when partisan control shifted hands. We seem to be experiencing something similar right now.” — Neil Irwin, Axios

Americans are really ‘unhappy’ to boot

“Since 1990, the number of Americans reporting they feel ‘not too happy’ has been trending upward, particularly among those without a college education. The onset of the pandemic only exacerbated the growing national unhappiness. … Whatever the causes, it turns out that unhappiness is a very strong predictor of voting behavior. Being extremely unhappy more than doubled a person’s likelihood of voting for Trump in 2016, and the unhappiest counties were the Trumpiest.” — Deepak Bhargava, Shahrzad Shams and Harry Hanbury, Democracy Journal