Biden’s Approval Rating Isn’t Bouncing Back

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President Joe Biden spent the beginning of his term comfortably above water in the polls. On July 20, the six-month anniversary of his inauguration, his average job approval rating stood at 52.3 percent, and his average disapproval rating stood at 42.5 percent — numbers that were fairly representative of his first semester.

But that honeymoon period came to a halt in late summer. The delta variant of the coronavirus led to a surge in cases and deaths starting in late July, accompanied by renewed fears about the economy and inflation; by Aug. 15, Biden’s approval rating had dropped 2.3 percentage points (to 50.0 percent), and his disapproval rating had risen 1.3 points (to 43.8 percent). That same day, the Taliban seized control of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, completing a stunningly fast collapse of the country’s government following the withdrawal of American troops. The Taliban takeover, and the ensuing humanitarian crisis, appeared to accelerate the decrease in Biden’s popularity. By Aug. 30, more Americans disapproved of Biden’s job performance than approved of it, and on Sept. 8, his approval/disapproval spread was 45.0 percent to 49.1 percent.

At the time, we theorized that Biden’s approval rating might recover before too long, especially once the news cycle moved on from the crisis in Afghanistan. After all, presidents’ approval ratings tend to revert to the mean, and fluctuations in former President Donald Trump’s approval rating were especially short-lived. But we’re now more than a month removed from Biden’s difficult August, and there have been no signs of a rebound in his approval rating. At the end of the day on Oct. 5, Biden’s approval/disapproval spread was 44.8 percent to 47.9 percent. That approval rating, in fact, is so far the lowest of his presidency.

Biden’s approval rating has failed to improve even as Afghanistan has faded from the headlines. According to closed-captioning data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive, from Aug. 12 through Sept. 1, the three major cable-news networks (CNN, Fox News and MSNBC) mentioned Afghanistan in an average of 1,320 15-second clips per day. From Sept. 2 through Sept. 30, however, they mentioned the country in an average of only 403 clips per day. (This is, however, still more often than Afghanistan was in the news before the Taliban’s takeover. From Aug. 1 through Aug. 11, the three networks mentioned Afghanistan in an average of just 56 clips per day.)

This is consistent with the argument that the decline in Biden’s approval rating was never just about Afghanistan. The timing of it suggested it was also driven by the resurgent pandemic, dissatisfaction with the economy, or even natural post-honeymoon reversion to a mean that is more realistic in these polarized times. In other words, a myriad of factors.

Accordingly, there may be no easy fix for Biden. Even an improvement in the COVID-19 situation may not improve his political fortunes: According to data compiled by The New York Times, the rolling average of newly detected COVID-19 cases nationally has decreased since mid-September, but Biden’s average approval rating on the issue of the coronavirus has remained steady. (As of Oct. 5,1 50.5 percent of Americans approved of his handling of the pandemic, and 40.7 percent disapproved.)

Of course, case counts remain quite high in absolute terms (higher than at any point in the pandemic other than last winter), so Americans may not quite be in a mood to give Biden credit just yet. It doesn’t mean, however, that Biden won’t receive a political boost if and when the pandemic truly ends.

Other news developments could help or hurt Biden politically as well, such as whether Democrats in Congress pass their infrastructure and budget reconciliation bills or if the government defaults on its debt. So we’ll have to wait and see what happens to Biden’s approval rating going forward — which will be important for, among other reasons, assessing how big of a shellacking Democrats will receive in the 2022 midterm elections (or if they will receive one at all). But for now at least, Biden has a lower approval rating at this point in his term than all but two presidents2 since 1945, so if he’s going to regain his popularity, he’s got an unusually big hole to dig himself out of.

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