The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How bad things are for Biden

It’s not just his approval rating; it’s his lack of a base

President Biden walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on June 8. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden is an unpopular president. And the thing is: That’s not unusual in the modern era. Presidents are generally unpopular these days. Biden’s numbers are somewhat below average, but the average is a minority of Americans approving of a president.

But even Biden’s overall numbers undersell his political troubles. And some new polls drive that home.

An NPR/PBS/Marist College poll released Thursday shows Biden with his lowest approval rating to date, at 38 percent. Similarly, a Quinnipiac University poll released this week showed Biden tying his previous low of 33 percent. (Quinnipiac is often one of Biden’s worst polls.)

But dig a little deeper, and you’ll see something even more troublesome for Democrats: Biden looks to be a leader largely without a base of devoted supporters. Those who dislike him overwhelmingly feel strongly, but those who like him overwhelmingly … don’t.

To wit:

  • In the Marist poll, 40 percent “strongly” disapproved of him, while 14 percent “strongly” approved.
  • In the Quinnipiac poll, 45 percent “strongly” disapproved, while 15 percent “strongly” approved.
  • In the most recent NBC News poll, the numbers were 45-16.
  • In the most recent AP-NORC poll, the numbers were 39-12.

In three of these cases, it’s Biden’s worst showing to date. In the fourth — the Marist poll — it’s only one point off his worst, from last month.

It is very rare for three times as many people to strongly dislike a president as strongly like him.

Polling conducted for The Washington Post and ABC News has tested this question for every president dating back to Ronald Reagan. And only once has a president seen three times as many people strongly disliking them as strongly liking them. It was George W. Bush in the waning days of his presidency — October 2008 — when at his low point, a stunning 58 percent strongly disapproved of him, while 7 percent approved.

Barack Obama bottomed out early in his presidency, with 37 percent strongly disliking him, 18 percent strongly liking him — a 2-to-1 ratio. Bill Clinton’s worst split was 31-13, also early in his presidency. And George H.W. Bush’s worst split was 24-12. (The latter two presided in a far less polarized time, in which you couldn’t could count on one-third or more of the country to strongly dislike the other side’s president at all times.)

Which brings us to Donald Trump. Trump’s numbers were comparable to Biden’s, at certain points. But Trump faced stronger feelings both for and against. In a mid-2018 poll, 53 percent strongly disapproved of Trump, while 24 percent strongly approved.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Trump engendered more passion on both sides than Biden does. But that cuts both ways. Biden now has a predictably large portion of the country — 40-plus percent — that strongly dislikes him, which is pretty normal these days. But he doesn’t have the countervailing support from his base.

In recent polls, including the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in April, the percentage of Democrats who strongly approve of Biden has been between the mid-30s (34 percent in the Marist poll) and the mid-40s (44 percent in both the Quinnipiac and Post-ABC poll). In other words, a majority of Democrats don’t strongly approve of a Democratic president.

And that is also highly unusual. Trump never saw his “strong” support from his party drop below a majority. Obama saw something similar on a couple occasions, dipping into the low 40s for a couple months. And Bush wouldn’t get there until the final year-plus of his presidency.

All of which poses a problem for Democrats in the midterms. Trump was at his worst on this question shortly before the 2018 midterms, in which his party lost the House. Ditto with Obama and the 2014 midterms, when he lost the Senate. And Bush was at his worst right before Republicans were drubbed in the 2008 presidential election.

Democrats need to be asking themselves just what’s going to bring their voters out, given that most of them don’t see Biden’s presidency as something they strongly support. Perhaps they can be convinced that it’s just that important to prevent Republicans (and Trump) from retaking power. But it’s a much more difficult proposition.

Making things worse, Biden has been sliding into this position for a while now, with no signs that this is as temporary as it has been for his predecessors who have found themselves in comparable positions. Perhaps the slide will be arrested if inflation is alleviated. But that’s not something that happens overnight. And for now, there are no easy answers.

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.