The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden shouldn’t feel bad. Voters don’t like anyone these days.

A polling location in Lansing, Mich., on Aug. 2. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
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President Biden’s rotten polling numbers — only about 40 percent of Americans approve of his performance, according to FiveThirtyEight’s average — have inspired a bazillion headlines. But what has received far less attention is that Americans these days don’t like, well, anyone.

Look at polling for Republicans in Congress, Democrats in Congress, defeated former president Donald Trump, Vice President Harris and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and you’ll find that Americans give thumbs down on all of them. Indeed, less than 20 percent of Americans say the country is on the right track, according to the RealClearPolitics average.

Moreover, Gallup reported in early July, “Americans are less confident in major U.S. institutions than they were a year ago, with significant declines for 11 of the 16 institutions tested and no improvements for any.” Specifically, “This year’s poll marks new lows in confidence for all three branches of the federal government — the Supreme Court (25%), the presidency (23%) and Congress. Five other institutions are at their lowest points in at least three decades of measurement, including the church or organized religion (31%), newspapers (16%), the criminal justice system (14%), big business (14%) and the police.”

Most voters don’t want Biden to run for reelection. They don’t want Trump to run for president. Most believe the state of the economy is poor, even though only 17 percent say the same about their own economic standing. Despite this persistent bad economic outlook, consumer spending keeps rising.

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Notice a pattern? American sure seem predisposed to dislike anything or anyone. (Or maybe they don’t like being asked what they like and don’t like?) Rather than using this polling data to conclude that “Biden is cooked” or “Democrats are doomed,” perhaps it’s time for pundits to question how much guidance they can glean from polling when Americans are endemically dissatisfied with politics and just about anyone associated with it. As anyone who has dealt with a spouse in a foul mood can attest, sometimes one must take statements from a grumpy individual with a grain of salt.

Ask voters whether we are doing enough to fight inflation, to help Ukraine or to do just about anything else, and you’ll likely get a resounding “no.” Perhaps a more constructive question would be: “Considering the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in, do you think X has at least done their best?”

You can hardly blame voters for their ungenerous spirit. After more than two years of dealing with the pandemic, school closures, supply-chain-created shortages, shutdowns, the 2020 recession, the current economic slowdown, the onset of the monkeypox emergency, horrible airline service, high gas prices and inflation more broadly, it would be odd if they weren’t in a sour mood.

So what should we take away from all this? For starters, straight up-or-down approval ratings likely don’t reveal much about voters’ choices, which are what elections are all about. When pollsters ask the “Do you approve of X?” question, keep in mind the rejoinder: “Compared with what?"

The same poll might show Biden with terrible approval ratings but still beating Trump in a head-to-head matchup. Likewise, Biden’s awful polling doesn’t reveal much about the choice between a Democratic or Republican candidate in the midterms.

Moreover, given the less-than-stellar performance of pollsters over the past couple of election cycles, analysts, pundits, politicians and media consumers would be wise to show more humility and less certainty in their prognostications. And certainly let’s dispense with the notion that “history” says much about what’s about to happen. This is uncharted territory.