The August jobs report was the first to fully include the effects of the fourth surge of the virus, the one driven by the delta variant that is now the overwhelming cause of new cases. In other words, employment and coronavirus infections continue to move in an inverse relationship: one goes up, the other goes down.
This is bad political news for President Biden. He and his team have touted his stewardship of the economy, saying even on Friday in remarks centered on the jobs report that “the Biden plan is working.” That plan, though, depends on the economy not sputtering to a standstill, something that itself remains linked to the progress of the pandemic. If Biden’s plan doesn’t work — or, more accurately, if the economy starts to move sluggishly or contract — it’s near-certain that Biden and his party will suffer politically.
Biden’s already in a worse position than he was a month ago. The FiveThirtyEight average of his approval rating shows that the number of people who view Biden’s job performance positively is now smaller than the number who see it negatively in national polling. There was another bit of bad news for Biden on Friday morning on that front: The Washington Post and our partners at ABC News released a poll showing that Biden is seven points underwater, a shift that’s largely attributable to the only group whose opinions of presidents move much these days: independents.
This drop in Biden’s approval has been attributed to the handling of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, something that even many Democrats viewed negatively in the new Post-ABC poll. FiveThirtyEight’s average began to narrow at the end of July, with Biden’s disapproval spiking upward after the fall of Kabul.
But weekly polling data from YouGov conducted for the Economist shows that both Republicans and independents started souring on Biden earlier this year. Republican approval peaked in early May, at the same point when Republican approval of Biden on the economy was at its highest. Also notable is Biden’s position in late June. For much of his presidency, Biden’s approval has been obviously linked to his handling of the pandemic. His approval on that metric began to sink in the polling released by YouGov on June 21 — the same day as the recent low in new coronavirus infections nationally — seems to suggest that Biden’s approval has been driven down to a significant extent out of frustration with his handling of the pandemic.
YouGov hadn’t been polling regularly on Afghanistan until recently. Two weeks ago, Biden’s approval on Afghanistan was well below where it was in mid-April when the pollsters had last asked. In the two polls since, both Democrats and respondents overall have viewed Biden’s handling of the troop withdrawal more positively, probably in part because Democrats have rallied around Biden to some extent, which is pulling his overall poll numbers up. But even with that upward tick on Afghanistan, the three-week average of his approval ratings overall have continued to slip lower — as has approval of his handling of the pandemic.
This is one set of polls and it would be foolish not to recognize that the flurry of unfavorable reports about Afghanistan probably contributed to his weaker position in the polling average. But the data from YouGov do suggest that his approval rating overall was already in decline before the events in Afghanistan last month.
That data also raises an interesting possibility: The pandemic could continue to tamp down on his approval ratings on the economy and, therefore, on his approval overall. In other words, a pandemic that is largely a function of outbreaks in Republican parts of the country because of disproportionate Republican opposition to mask-wearing and vaccination has hurt, is hurting and will continue to hurt Biden politically.
In most cases, opposition to efforts to contain the virus from Republicans are not centered on that political outcome. Last month, though, the Daily Beast reported that this might be influencing former president Donald Trump’s disinterest in promoting the vaccines.
“Trump has simply said he doesn’t feel he needs to do any ‘favors’ for Biden, given how much Biden is ‘destroying’ the country,” sources told reporters Asawin Suebsaeng and Adam Rawnsley — “and that if Biden wants to ask him to do something, the sitting president is welcome to ask, the sources recounted.”
As Suebsaeng and Rawnsley reported, Trump has also responded to polling showing that his base is unusually skeptical about the vaccine. That was reflected in a report from the Wall Street Journal on Friday, indicating that Trump didn’t plan to get a booster shot for the vaccine.
“I’ll look at stuff later on,” he told the paper. “I’m not against it, but it’s probably not for me.”
Not robust encouragement to get more Republicans protected from infection.
It seems likely that the withdrawal from Afghanistan, obviously a major part of the political discussion at the moment, will fade from view somewhat over the coming weeks. It’s possible that the pandemic will, too, with the fourth surge in cases starting to slow its increase. But it’s far more likely that the latter issue will stick around and influence Biden’s approval both directly and through the wobbling of the economy. It’s likely, too, that it will reemerge later this fall and winter as cases increase in parts of the country where the weather has turned cold.
In other words, it’s likely that Biden’s political position softened thanks to Afghanistan but that, over the long term, it’s more at risk from the pandemic that he has a uniquely limited ability to influence.