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Opinion Why Biden’s popularity has dropped and how he could bounce back

President Biden holds a Cabinet meeting to discuss the implementation of the infrastructure bill at the White House on Nov. 12. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
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President Biden’s plunging approval rating is part of the reason Democrats did so badly in elections in New Jersey, Virginia and other places this month. But we don’t really know why Biden’s numbers have dropped so much. And that confusing, complicated dynamic is a good thing for the president — because he might be able to improve his standing without anything too dramatic happening.

It has been a bad three-month turn for the president. On July 26, about 53 percent of adults approved of his performance, compared with 43 percent who disapproved, according to FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls. By Aug. 26, for the first time in Biden’s presidency, disapproval reached the same level as approval: 47 percent. By Oct. 26, just before the off-year election, Biden had fallen even further — 43 percent approval vs. 51 percent disapproval. That’s about where he remains now.

The big dip in August is easy to explain. The delta variant caused the first and only major surge in coronavirus cases and deaths since Biden became president. Even if the administration couldn’t do much to prevent that surge, it undermined the argument that the pandemic was under control. Also, August was the time of the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Covid-19 cases and deaths have declined since early September, but Biden’s numbers continue to fall. There have been economic challenges around inflation, particularly high gas prices, and supply chain issues, but there has been good economic news, too. September and October of course included the protracted debate on Capitol Hill over Biden’s domestic policy agenda, which certainly didn’t help Biden’s standing.

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You could argue that all of those things — bad economic news, delta, Afghanistan, congressional gridlock — combined to undercut Biden’s popularity. That’s likely true. But that story is also fairly odd when you put it all together. Lots of voters soured on Biden because of Afghanistan and the delta variant, but few came back to him after those issues were resolved, because there was inflation and he couldn’t keep congressional Democrats in line. Really?

The confusion in that narrative helps explain why the various Democratic factions emerged from the party’s dismal election results pushing the exact same strategies they pushed before the elections. More centrist figures say Biden’s agenda is too bold and turning off swing voters; progressives say centrists are blocking the bold parts of Biden’s agenda, depressing the party’s base. The White House continues to argue that the key is for Democrats to just get stuff done.

I think all of those arguments are wrong — or at least incomplete — because they leave out two important factors: negative media coverage and broader political momentum.

The media has inclinations that were inevitably going to lead to negative coverage of Biden: the perception that the media was overly harsh to Donald Trump, which journalists want to rebut with equally tough coverage of the Democratic president; the media’s laudable desire to serve as check on power; and the fact that Democrats hold a trifecta in Washington, creating an expectation that they can quickly accomplish a lot if Biden leads them effectively.

The Clinton, Obama, Trump and now Biden administrations have followed the same pattern: The new president enters office with majorities of his own party in both houses of Congress; his agenda gets bogged down because of infighting within his own party and universal opposition from the other one; and the president’s poll numbers decline. What’s often overlooked is that the media casts those presidents as ineffective, which I think partly explains their polling declines.

In terms of momentum, I suspect there are some voters who are not particularly fixated on inflation or Afghanistan or legislative negotiations who simply thought Biden was doing well at the beginning and don’t have that view anymore. It’s like the ebb and flow of a basketball game. Biden doesn’t have positive momentum right now — and that negative dynamic is self-reinforcing.

So let’s say that Biden’s dip was caused by some combination of the delta variant, Afghanistan, inflation, gridlock, negative coverage and a loss of momentum. You can see how things could get even worse for him — continued inflation, another covid-19 wave and the stalling of Biden’s agenda are entirely possible and could lead to more negative coverage and a more entrenched sense that he is ineffective.

But you can also see a path to a turnaround: The big domestic policy bill passes, Biden signs some executive orders, millions of kids get vaccinated, the media covers those things positively, and he seems like a president who can get stuff done again.

Either path is entirely possible. The polls suggest about 45 percent of Americans have always approved of Biden, about 45 percent have always disapproved of him, and about 10 percent have shifted from approving to disapproving in the past few months. It’s likely that this 10 percent doesn’t follow politics super closely, so these media and momentum shifts have a big impact on this group.

A turnaround in Biden’s polling won’t necessarily save Democrats in the midterms. Republican voters simply might turn out in higher numbers. But Biden will get more cooperation from congressional Democrats, better coverage from the media and have improved prospects for winning reelection in 2024 if he gets his numbers back up. It’s hard to say how likely that is, but it’s possible.