Who to blame for Joe Biden's low approval ratings
Polarization and inflation are particular drags, but the president has little control over them. His legislative agenda is also not a panacea
There have been a string of articles this week about how Joe Biden is failing to meet expectations. Axios writes that he “closes out Year 1 on an epic losing streak.” POLITICO reports that a plurality of voters give Biden a failing grade for his first year. And Nate Cohn at the New York Times maintains that Biden was “supposed to be another FDR” but has failed. “One year into his presidency, no one is confusing Mr. Biden for Mr. Roosevelt,” Cohn writes. “Not with his legislative agenda stalled and his approval rating mired in the low forties… It’s not so much Mr. Roosevelt’s New Deal as Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. One launched an era of Democratic dominance; the other brought that era to its end.”
I think there are some obvious mistakes here. It is important to point them out because the many misreadings of this moment obfuscate how presidents actually claim credit, and how voter psychology actually reacts to their successes or failures.
But before we get there, I want to note that the idea that Biden was going to be another FDR was always a tough sell. He did not have the 58 (and, later, 75!) seats that Roosevelt had when he was elected in 1932 (and 1936), and even intraparty demand for policy change was weaker than after the Great Recession. That notwithstanding, I guess this is an easy way to set up an obvious column. A writer can plausibly assert that Biden was “supposed to be” FDR by cherry-picking quotes from overpromising commentators and then write a pretty boilerplate “the president is failing to meet expectations” piece when Biden doesn’t pass a new New Deal. But that strikes me as more of a straw man to get the piece going.
This all being said, I suppose the more important problem is the question of what Biden does and doesn’t get rated on. The conventional wisdom about Biden right now is that he hasn’t returned the country to its pre-covid-19 normal, as he promised to try to do, and so is being punished by voters. Inflation, too, is hurting him—and the conventional wisdom stipulates it’s hurting him because he “isn’t doing enough” about it. To quote at length from Cohn:
Perhaps the history books will remember Mr. Biden for putting America on a path to normalcy. But Americans do not have that impression of the Biden administration today. More than half of voters think Mr. Biden is not focused enough on the economy or inflation, according to the recent CBS/YouGov poll. [Emphasis added]
The poll gave no indication that Mr. Biden’s legislative agenda would do much to improve his standing. Just 24 percent of voters said their opinion of Mr. Biden would improve if he passed the Build Back Better Act, even though a majority of voters say they support the proposal. In contrast, 70 percent said their opinion of Mr. Biden would improve if he tamed inflation, while 60 percent said it would improve if the coronavirus situation did.
Voters should not necessarily be taken at their word, but their message is consistent with a large body of political science research: The fortunes of the president are tied to the strength of the economy. [Emphasis added]
The latter part here is right. But it’s peculiar for a journalist to cite this political science while simultaneously arguing that Biden would be doing better if only he focused on economic policy. This strikes me as a pretty un-evidenced view, for a few reasons.
The first reason is that the president doesn’t actually have a lot of levers to pull to control the economy and inflation, anyway. The Fed, which is independent of the executive, controls monetary policy. While voters reward presidents when the economy is growing that’s not necessarily because they’re giving him credit for a direct, causal role in their good fortunes. Likely, they are just rationalizing that things have been going well and they’d like them to continue to go well.
Another peculiarity is the lack of acknowledgment of what Biden is trying to do on inflation. He has backed the Fed’s policy to increase interest rates, which historically helps slow or reverse inflation; his social agenda contains provisions to decrease the cost of child care, which could help put people back to work and easy supply chain issues; ditto for his infrastructure spending, which aims to increase trade capacity; BBB includes provisions to increase competition (which voters also really want); and Biden has released strategic gas reserve to decrease the cost of fuel. The false dichotomy in the polling that Biden can either focus on BBB or focus on inflation is.. well, a false dichotomy.
That brings us to a third issue, which is a problem of measurement. What is this polling really telling us? I am not sure what else we would expect from polling on BBB, inflation, and Biden’s agenda. It seems like reporters and politicians have created this dichotomy between dealing with the two, and then reporters look for evidence of the dichotomy by asking voters to repeat what they’ve heard from news and politicians. Besides, we have a lot of political science research and other evidence that inflation expectations are heavily influenced by politics and partisanship. Economic expectations among Democrats and Republicans flipped almost immediately after Donald Trump was elected, and then again when Joe Biden assumed office. This matches the conclusions from prior research that finds “around 25% of the total [historical] difference between inflation expectations in Democratic-dominated versus Republican-dominated states is based on how partisans respond to changes in the White House’s occupant (partisan bias).” I imagine the percentage is even higher today, given modern levels of partisan sorting.
And, to make things more complex, this all flies in the face of other evidence which suggests that presidents who pass more laws in the first two years of their presidency also experience larger backlashes in subsequent elections. The theories around “thermostatic” public opinion suggest that Biden’s approval would actually be worse if he took ambitious action on the economy, not better. That’s just another piece of evidence Cohn’s piece fails to grapple with.
Okay, that’s a lot. So what are we left with?
Naturally, since we are dealing with politics and psychology, the story here is complicated — but the evidence suggests (1) that inflation expectations are tied only loosely to the reality of inflation, which is itself (2) only weakly related to things the president has under his control, which he has (3) mostly tried already. And (4) contrary to assertions that Biden should just “focus on” inflation, it’s not clear what that would look like in practice given he is already saying what pundits are saying he should do. The ultimate weakness in the attack is (5) that, actually, the prescriptions might make him worse off, not better off.
Finally, after reading a lot of literature and data, this whole discourse seems rather silly to me. In our modern age of polarization and polarized media, and given the president’s limited ability to influence economic outcomes, the conventional wisdom seems much more grounded in ideology and polling hot takes than actual knowledge rooted in systematic analyses of the available data. Given partisanship, it’s truer than ever that what people think is going on is being shaped by their elite opinion leaders rather than the reality of the situation. That may be the fault of Newt Gingrich, Roger Ailes, and Donald Trump than Joe Biden’s. And Jerome Powell could do more to fight inflation than Biden can — never mind that the president is supporting his efforts to do so.
One way to wrap this all up is to say people are thinking much more about what the president could do about his polling numbers instead of what psychology and information are shaping the public’s attitudes in the first place. If commentators did more of the latter, I think we’d all be a lot better off.