Biden’s weak polls are exactly what we should expect
But this rising inflation and resulting pessimism about the economy has restored one thing to normal: the historical relationship between how Americans view the economy and how they view the president.
For a long time, “it’s the economy, con” has been solid advice for understanding presidential endorsement. Approval increased when the economy grew. See, for example, Bill Clinton growing popularity during the robust economy of the late 1990s. And approval plummeted during recessions – as it did for George H. W. Bush in 1991.
How divided is the United States politically? It’s complicated but quantifiable.
But under the administrations of Barack Obama and Trump, this link between the economy and presidential approval has appeared weaker, if not non-existent. This was evident in the relationship between the presidential endorsement and the University of Michigan Survey Research Center survey. Consumer Sentiment Index, a long-standing measure of economic assessments that combines different questions about how people perceive their personal financial situation and the business situation in the country. This index has a historic low of 50 and a historic high of 112.
For all presidents, from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, higher levels of consumer sentiment were associated with higher levels of presidential approval, as shown in the figure below. To measure average monthly presidential approval ratings, we relied on compendiums from various academics, HuffPost Pollster and, more recently, FiveThirtyEight.
But then, under Obama and Trump, that changed. During their presidencies, there was very little relationship between consumer sentiment and presidential approval.
Obama’s approval rating barely budged even as consumer sentiment rebounded from its low point during the Great Recession of 2008 to 2009. Trump’s approval rating was chronically low despite high levels of sentiment consumers, and it did not decline even when consumer sentiment declined during the covid-19 pandemic-induced recession.
This curious feature of the Obama and Trump presidencies has been documented in Politics Science to research. One explanation is that in times of strong partisanship, it is more difficult for presidents to win over many voters from opposing parties in times of economic growth or lose the support of their own party’s voters in times of recession.
But Biden’s presidency looks different, at least so far. As consumer sentiment plummeted, Biden’s approval rating plummeted with him. Here’s that same chart, including data from Biden’s presidency through June.
The relationship is clear: Biden’s approval rating is lower now that consumer sentiment has plummeted. The size of this relationship – represented by the blue line – is almost identical to the relationship that existed from 1961 to 2008.
Of course, Biden’s dip in approval may have other sources. Presidents typically lose support as the post-inauguration “honeymoon” period wears off. Biden too faces further outbreaks of covid-19 and the disorderly withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in August 2021. Nonetheless, Americans’ views on the economy help explain Biden’s lesser endorsement.
This raises a more optimistic possibility for Biden: his approval rating could rise if the rate of inflation declines and consumer sentiment improves. Already, the Federal Reserve has raised interest rates and consumer spending has fallen, which could help lower prices. At the same time, there remains the risk of an outright recession, which could affect Biden’s approval in ways that Obama and Trump have not.
Either way, the implication for Biden is clear: Unlike his two recent White House predecessors, his political fortunes may depend on the direction the economy is heading.