Millions of Americans have lost their once-considerable enthusiasm for President Joe Biden, as his popularity hit a record low this week. About 43.8 percent of U.S. voters approve of Biden’s performance, while 50.5 percent disapprove, according to the daily polling average calculated by FiveThirtyEight. That’s a sharp contrast from the first six months of his term when his approval ratings typically ranged between 52 and 54 percent. His popularity began dropping in late July, and his net rating turned negative at the end of August. Since then, voters’ opinions of the president have only worsened. What happened?

David A. Hopkins, a professor of political science at Boston College, analyzed Biden’s strong approval rating in April in an interview at The Signal. The difference today, Hopkins says, is that Covid-19’s Delta variant and an erratic economy eroded the American public’s springtime optimism about recovery from the pandemic. To Hopkins, the botched withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August led to persistently negative media coverage, further damaging the president’s reputation. Unlike the decision to leave Afghanistan, in Hopkins’s view, the pandemic and the economy are largely outside Biden’s control—and his approval rating could significantly recover next year if the pandemic winds down and the economy picks up. The president’s approval ratings matter, Hopkins says, because even a percentage point or two can make the difference between winning and losing an election in a time when partisan polarization has divided the U.S. electorate into nearly equal blocs. As Hopkins sees it, Biden’s unpopularity today is also making it harder to push through his major legislative goals—an infrastructure bill, along with a budget-reconciliation bill to expand the social-safety net and address climate change.

Michael Bluhm: What’s driving these shifts in American public opinion about Biden, and what do you think they mean?

David A. Hopkins: It’s hard to prove what causes these changes in opinion, but we can make some reasonable inferences based on the timing of the change.

One thing has been Covid. In the spring, it looked like we had rounded the final curve in recovery, on both infection rates and economic performance. Today, it’s a less rosy picture. The Delta surge over the summer likely contributed to the decline in Biden’s approval—partially because people are less optimistic in general: It doesn’t look like Covid’s going away soon.

Also, when you’re scared about the virus, you’re not going out, and spending money; you’re not back to your old lifestyle; and the effects on economic performance start to appear. We’ve had disappointing job-growth and GDP figures. The president, based on history, ultimately takes the blame when the economy isn’t performing as well as people think it should be. That’s a big part of the picture.

On top of that, the withdrawal from Afghanistan in August produced the first sustained, negative press coverage of the Biden presidency. The mainstream media covered that very extensively and very critically. Biden was portrayed as having blundered in both the decision to withdraw and the execution of the withdrawal. That seems to have coincided with a drop in his approval, if we look at the survey data.

Henry Guan

Bluhm: In our April conversation at The Signal, you indicated that immigration could be a vulnerable issue for Biden. Since then, we’ve seen the president extend some Trump immigration policies, as well as a surge of Haitian migrants on the Texas border. Are Biden’s immigration policies hurting his approval rating?

Hopkins: That’s possible, but it’s hard to say for sure. We know from the polling that his approval on immigration tends to be pretty low—even in the spring, it was pretty low. It’s not a winning issue for him. But whether that can account for the change we’ve seen since the spring is difficult to determine, because of all these other developments. It’s not helping him, but how much it’s hurting him is uncertain.

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