This month's Daily Kos/Civiqs survey was created with the intention of trying to pinpoint why President Joe Biden's approval ratings are falling. While Biden hasn’t yet delivered on everything promised, he’s moved quickly to put a down payment on much of the agenda that he ran on. And while the Afghanistan withdrawal was undoubtedly chaotic, his numbers started falling even before the last several weeks of news coverage. So what gives, and what can Democrats do about it?
The poll, which tested 12 Biden accomplishments, found that 10 of them were quite popular, winning either majority or plurality approval. Biden's nationwide vaccination push proved by to be far his most winning policy, garnering 71% approval from registered voters.
The data were very interesting, but did little to illuminate the reasons for Biden's sagging approvals. In fact, in some ways it yielded more questions than answers. The Civiqs poll of Biden’s already-implemented policies, coupled with this week’s Data For Progress survey of policies the president is still working to push through Congress, demonstrated the overwhelming strength of Biden's sweeping agenda. Popular polices = popular president, right?
Yet, in both Civiqs tracking of Biden’s approval ratings and the FiveThirtyEight aggregate, the president has clearly shed support. Civiqs tracking, where Biden is eight points underwater, shows a slow-but-steady decline beginning around mid-May; while the polling aggregate, which puts Biden roughly two points underwater, suggests a more precipitous drop, starting around late July.
It's perhaps worth noting that almost all of the movement has been among independents and Democrats. GOP voters have disapproved of Biden at a pretty steady 90+% ever since he set foot in the Oval Office. Since May, Biden has lost about a handful of points among Democrats, but 85% still give his job performance a thumbs up. Among independents, Biden’s approvals stabilized for a couple months following passage of pandemic relief, but since early May, he has slipped seven points, from 39% approval to 32% approval.
Regardless of where Biden has lost support, it's still not exactly clear why and whether it's a temporary dip or more fixed. The late-July timing of the fallout in the FiveThirtyEight aggregate suggests that some combination of the delta surge and the Afghanistan withdrawal has shaken Americans' confidence in Biden. Those are both issues that could conceivably be corrected over time, particularly given that Americans think highly of Biden's vaccination push and agree with Biden's bottom-line assessment of Afghanistan: It was time for the U.S. to leave. In this week's Civiqs poll, voters supported the withdrawal by a 17-point margin, 52% to 35%. Pew Research Center recently found Americans favored withdrawal by 12 points, 54% to 42%.
That said, nothing feels exactly definitive and much of the polling yields somewhat conflicting information—sometimes even within the same poll. For instance, an ABC News-Ipsos poll this week showed Biden taking a 17-point hit on Afghanistan, while his approvals ticked up on nearly every other issue, including the pandemic, economy, immigration, gun violence, and crime.
Other polls have shown a dip in approval for the president's handling of COVID-19. This month's AP-NORC poll found Biden's pandemic approvals had slid 12 points since last month, to 54%.
One way or the other, Biden's numbers have fallen but the causation remains murky. It's possible that people are simply sick and tired of the pandemic and Biden hasn't managed to make it disappear—as it appeared he might just several months ago. Gallup found this week that 68% of Americans say the coronavirus is getting worse, up from 45% in July. In June, just 3% thought the situation was worsening, while 89% believed it was getting better. That's some serious whiplash for voters who really started to believe some type of normalcy was within reach before the delta variant started ripping through the Sun Belt.
Another possibility is the notion that most everyone who voted to oust Donald Trump from office believed a Biden presidency would restore a sense of calm to the nation. And while that seemed to be coming to fruition during the early stages of the vaccine drive, and as Democrats passed the relief package, things have really gone sideways since. Delta is surging. Afghanistan spiraled out of control. Climate-induced weather disasters are pummeling the nation. Everywhere people look seems pretty bleak at the moment, and Biden hasn't been able to rein it in enough to generally make life feel more manageable.
That's the type of helplessness that could drag down the approvals of a president even as they both pursue and deliver on popular policies.
However, that does not mean Biden or congressional Democrats should retreat from their current course of action. The best antidote for soothing people in search of answers is to provide those answers, even if they can’t meet every need. Go ahead and pass the infrastructure and jobs bills and make historic investments in combatting the climate change that's breathing down our necks. Give people a sense of hope and agency and make them feel like they have a partner in the federal government again. That competence of the vaccination rollout has clearly impressed Americans, and they need to feel more government responsiveness to their needs, not less. Do it, and then brag, brag, brag about it because it’s all pretty damn popular.
That said, accomplishments alone likely won’t be enough to win an election that takes place amid a time of historic upheaval and discomfort. Democrats must make a concerted effort to make the midterms a choice between a party that's delivering for the people, and a party that has produced the horror show we are now witnessing in Texas.
Republicans are well on their way to locking in one-party rule nationwide. Give them the keys to the kingdom, and Texas is America's future. Law enforcement will become an exercise in vigilante justice. Pregnant people won't be able to legally access abortions, even in cases of rape and incest. Everyone who wants to flaunt a gun publicly will be able to do so without a license, permit, fingerprinting, or training, and without a lick of sense. The electrical grid will be a deadly menace for the masses, while a few power barons make bank. Fundamental voting rights for people of color will be decimated. And when it comes to public health, everyone—including kids—will be nothing more than sacrificial lambs to the political aspirations of the powerful.
This is what dictators do: They kill for power, they rig elections, they enrich their already engorged friends, and eventually they keep an unseemly cut for themselves while the people starve.
Democrats will need to focus voters on the choice at hand between reasonable progress under Biden and the fringe fascism of Republicans. Left with a choice between Biden’s advances and the Texas nightmare, voters will sober up—even if things aren't as rosy as they had hoped they would be.