The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats have lost confidence that Biden can do what he promised — or much else

New polling shows particularly large drops over Biden’s pandemic response and his ability to unify the country

President Biden speaks during a meeting with the White House Competition Council on Jan. 24, 2022. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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There’s a relatively simple formula these days for having a presidential approval rating that is in line with your immediate predecessor’s: leverage partisan polarity and keep independents relatively happy. Barack Obama’s approval rating was generally around or under 50 percent because Democrats loved him, Republicans hated him, and independents generally liked him. Donald Trump’s was in the low 40s because Republicans loved him, Democrats hated him, and independents weren’t very enthusiastic.

In new polling from the Pew Research Center, President Biden’s approval rating is at a remarkably low 41 percent. That’s in part because independents view him fairly negatively, as they have for a while. But it’s also because Democrats don’t love him as much as they used to.

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In Pew’s data, Biden has gone from 95 percent approval among Democrats last spring to 76 percent in January. Since September, the percentage of Democrats who say they strongly approve of the job he’s doing has fallen from 27 to 21 percent. That’s a problem in part because approval ratings are a continuum: Voters don’t go from strongly approve to strongly disapprove in one fell swoop. First they transition from strong to less-strong approval — as many Democrats have.

On a slew of metrics, Democrats express far less confidence in Biden than they once had. The two biggest drops are on issues that he had repeatedly emphasized on the campaign trail and during his early days in office: managing the coronavirus pandemic and unifying the country. The former always seemed more feasible than the latter, and in March of last year, far more Democrats were confident that Biden could handle the pandemic (92 percent) than that he could unify the country (74 percent). Since then, though, Democratic confidence in each effort has dropped by more than 20 points.

It’s worth noting that Biden’s once-decent numbers on the pandemic from Republicans — a third had confidence in his handling of it in March! — also have tanked.

Pew’s data also suggests that Democrats have not only lost confidence in Biden’s ability to work across the aisle (understandably) but also are far less likely to even see that as a useful outcome. Since a year ago, there has been a 23-point net swing away from Democratic support for working with Republicans and toward standing up to the right. There was a larger swing among Republicans, even as they were far less likely to support congressional leaders’ working with Biden a year ago.

Of course, Biden’s inability to pass legislation is a function not only of intransigence from the opposing party but also from within his own. Most Democrats think Biden is listening to both moderate and liberal members of his party, though they are also much more likely to say he’s listening only to moderates than to say he’s listening only to liberals. As for who he should be listening to, 6 in 10 Democrats say that he should be listening to both sides.

(Interestingly, 11 percent of self-described liberal Democrats think he should be listening only to moderates. Nine percent of self-described moderates say the same about liberals.)

There are, of course, other concerns that filter in. Democrats share Republican frustration over increased prices for gasoline and consumer goods, though they view the changes in the past 12 months as less severe. (Four in 10 Democrats say gas prices have gone up a lot, for example, compared with 7 in 10 Republicans.) Confidence among Democrats in Biden’s ability to make good economic decisions is down 15 points over the past year.

Notice that much of this is out of Biden’s control. His pledges to unify the country — framed ambitiously to the point of near-delusion — were dependent on Republican acquiescence, which was always unlikely. The economy has been buffeted by factors that are not unique to the United States, such as supply-chain issues and inflation. And the government’s ability to combat the pandemic is hampered by indifference to that effort that itself overlaps with partisanship. As I wrote last week, though, Biden went from under- to over-promising on making change, probably contributing to the drop in confidence in his presidency.

The good news is that Biden can probably recover with members of his party. The bad news is that, even if he does, recent history suggests that is about the best he can hope to do.