The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Is the Democrats’ problem Biden or inflation?

President Biden in the Oval Office of the White House on July 12. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

President Biden is very unpopular right now, and that’s prompting prominent Democrats to increasingly complain that he is damaging the whole party’s electoral prospects, with some even suggesting he shouldn’t seek reelection. But what if his unusually low standing is just the result of inflation, particularly high gas prices?

There’s no question that Biden is unpopular. FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls puts him at 38 percent approval and 56 percent disapproval, significantly worse than Donald Trump (42-53) at this time in his presidency. The question is why Biden is so unpopular.

To try to answer this question, I reached out to a dozen pollsters, political scientists and other experts in politics and public opinion. The strong consensus was that if inflation were at normal levels and not constantly in the news, Biden’s approval rating would probably be between 41 and 45 percent, with his disapproval number between 51 and 54 percent. That would be similar to Trump; lag Bill Clinton (46-45) and Barack Obama at this stage (47-47); and fall way behind George W. Bush (70-23), who got really popular after the 9/11 attacks. Those estimates suggest that about half of Biden’s negative net approval rating is caused by high inflation.

In other words, while inflation has increased his unpopularity, Biden still probably would be more unpopular than popular today.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr.'s opinionsFollow

Voters are more partisan than when Clinton was president, so Biden was poised to be universally opposed by Republicans from the beginning. That polarization would boost him with Democrats, too, but inflation aside, some of the lack of progress on core policy issues such as climate change would have left a small bloc of Democrats disenchanted. Independents often become unsatisfied with any incumbent, which would have tipped him into negative territory overall. The experts I talked to also noted that Biden’s popularity declined, as it does for most presidents, after an initial honeymoon long before inflation and high gas prices became the defining narrative in media coverage of his administration.

I want to emphasize that this was a very informal exercise — it is impossible to know what Biden’s standing would be in different circumstances. Inflation has been elevated above the normal 2 percent rate for essentially Biden’s entire presidency — there was not a time of low prices under Biden we can compare with. And some of the experts dissented from the consensus.

John Sides, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, argued that Biden’s support is tracking closely with data on how Americans feel about the economy. So Biden would likely be around 50 percent, Sides argued, if Americans felt about the economy the way they did in December 2020, before this surge in inflation. G. Elliott Morris, a data journalist at the Economist and author of a new book on polling called “Strength in Numbers,” said his model looking at presidential approval and consumer price index data since the 1940s suggests that Biden would be at 52 percent approval if inflation were at 2 percent.

University of Minnesota policy analyst Will Stancil, on the other hand, argued that it’s a mistake to assume that presidential approval is always tied to inflation or other economic indicators. He noted that Trump was pretty unpopular in very good economic times four years ago and that Obama was significantly more popular in 2011 than Biden is right now, even though inflation-adjusted gas prices were roughly the same as today and unemployment was more than two times higher. In Stancil’s view, Biden’s unpopularity stems in part from an intense, negative media focus on inflation that is influencing the public. So according to Stancil, Biden could be just as unpopular with low inflation if the media were blasting him on another issue or more popular despite high inflation if the media wasn’t covering it so much.

Here’s why the source of Biden’s unpopularity matters so much. Even before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Democrats concerned about Biden’s age and low polling numbers were starting to wonder whether the party should choose a new standard-bearer. Frustration with the president increased after the ruling, with many activists arguing that Biden’s response wasn’t aggressive enough. A New York Times poll Monday finding that 64 percent of Democrats don’t want the president to run for a second term further revved up the intra-party debate.

The idea is that Biden is a risky bet for 2024 because of his bad polling numbers. But if you believe the experts’ consensus on inflation, Biden doesn’t seem as bad electorally.

Inflation is less Biden’s fault than a result of factors out of his control, such as supply-chain disruptions caused by the pandemic and policies implemented by the Federal Reserve. It’s true that last year’s Biden-backed American Rescue Plan contributed to inflation. But the plan was a party-wide initiative — it’s likely that a President Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, Warren or Sanders would have adopted a similar policy. If Biden is unpopular in part because of high inflation that probably would have happened under another Democratic president, the case that Biden is an anchor on the party becomes weaker.

Also, if inflation is a big culprit, there’s a clear path for Biden to become more popular. With the Fed working hard to reduce inflation, price increases are likely to ease significantly in the next year — and certainly by November 2024.

But acknowledging that Biden is unpopular in part because of inflation doesn’t fully get him off the hook. Biden’s administration has in many ways been a policy failure. His major legislative initiative, the Build Back Better Act, remains stalled. On abortion, student loans and other issues, he refuses to use his executive powers aggressively.

Politically, Biden has disappointed many of the party’s activists and one of its core bases, voters under 35. And even if there were lower inflation, there is little indication that Biden would be particularly popular among Republicans and conservative-leaning independents. That’s a big miss for this president, who has played down progressive causes and played up his good relationships with Republican lawmakers in part to woo non-Democrats.

Most important, even if Biden would be more popular if economic conditions were better, they aren’t and he isn’t. The fact that he became so unpopular could be a sign that Biden simply isn’t a very appealing figure to many Americans. And the angst and malaise about him during this high-inflation period might have permanently damaged him even if inflation comes down.

So there’s still a strong policy and electoral case that Democrats would be better off if they replaced Biden in 2024. That said, he’s probably not as bad a politician or potential 2024 presidential candidate as the polls right now make him look.

Loading...