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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Low Approval Ratings Happen to Nearly Every President, Not Just Biden and Jimmy Carter

Reading about President Biden’s approval ratings lately, it’s struck me that some of the panic among Democrats is based on a lack of accurate historical perspective. I sought to address that at New York?

Joe Biden’s presidential job-approval numbers have been sinking recently, and are now under 40 percent in both the RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight polling averages. This data point is understandably being linked in a lot of commentary to Biden’s relatively poor showing of late in general-election polls matching him against Donald Trump and/or a larger field that includes a passel of minor candidates.

To place this in the proper context, it’s helpful to note that a sub–40 percent job-approval rating is not terribly unusual for U.S. presidents. As Gallup explains, 11 of the 13 post–World War II presidents — all but Eisenhower and JFK — had approval ratings below 40 at some point. One of those presidents, of course, was Trump, who managed to hit 34 percent just as he was noisily and reluctantly leaving office.

No president has been reelected with a sub–40 percent job-approval rating on Election Day, but per Gallup, three had ratings below 50 percent in June of their successful reelection years (Harry Truman: 40 percent; George W. Bush: 49 percent; Barack Obama: 46 percent), and Gerald Ford missed reelection by an eyelash after posting a 45 precent approval rating in June 1976.

The idea that Biden is toast 11 months before Election Day 2024 is ridiculous. But what makes it especially ridiculous is the double-incumbency factor. Trump is not some fresh, promising alternative to an unpopular incumbent. He’s a recent incumbent himself who is very well known and steadily unpopular. Every struggling incumbent wants to make reelection a comparative rather than a referendum election. The 45th president is the ideal foil for the 46th.

Biden’s poor job-approval ratings should be compared to Trump’s very similar recent favorability ratings. At RCP Trump’s favorability averages are currently at 40.4 percent, a half-percent above Biden’s job-approval averages. Trump’s record as president is in the can, and he has clearly doubled down on the issue-positioning and personal conduct that have put a cap on his popularity. Biden’s popularity has room for improvement as his presidential record evolves. Trump’s? Not so much.

Without much question, the impending Biden-Trump rematch is an “unpopularity contest.” As veteran political observer Bill Schneider suggests, these two men are precisely the kind of presidential candidates who play into partisan stereotypes that cut both ways:

“Democrats win when they nominate a ‘tough liberal.’ They used to do that in the old days, with standard bearers like Harry Truman (who fired General MacArthur), John F. Kennedy (the Cuban Missile Crisis) and Lyndon Johnson …

“Many Republicans have a reputation for being mean and nasty (Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and certainly Donald Trump). Republicans need a ‘nice conservative’ …

“That was Ronald Reagan, who, voters quickly found out, was not going to start a war or throw old people out in the snow. Donald Trump denounces “niceness” as a sign of weakness. He has advised the police, ‘Please don’t be too nice’ in handling criminal suspects.”

So in 2024, we are likely to have an unpopularity contest between a Democrat who is not very tough and a Republican who is not very nice. That’s why it’s so close, and so hard to predict.

Biden is more likely to get tough than Trump is to get nice. But the key point is that this will be a comparative election no matter how far Biden’s job-approval rating lags at this point. As the president often says: “Don’t compare me to the Almighty but to the alternative.”

Yes, Biden needs, and is perfectly capable of achieving, a higher job-approval rating between now and next November. But his opponent’s popularity is crucial and is probably capped. Team Biden needs not only to energize its currently passive electoral base but to have the kind of swing-voter appeal that was crucial in beating Trump in 2020. Indeed, Biden may have to win voters who don’t like either candidate, which will require a focus on Trump’s terrifying second-term agenda.

There is no particular level of popularity, however, that the incumbent president needs to achieve in order to prevail in a contest with his unpopular predecessor. This really could be a race to the near-bottom.

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