As unimaginable as it might have been a year ago, Joe Biden is starting to resemble Donald Trump in public-opinion polling. The current U.S. president’s approval rating is only slightly higher than his predecessor’s was at the same point in his tenure, in late April 2018. Biden took office in January 2021 with 53 percent approval and only 36 percent disapproval, but he’s ending this month with 53 percent disapproval and only 42 percent approval. According to the polling firm Gallup, approval for Biden has “declined far more among younger than older generations of Americans,” to where “older Americans are now more likely to approve of the president than younger Americans are.” (His approval among Millennials and Generation Z has dropped from about 60 percent to around 40.) All of this is bad news for Biden’s Democratic Party, which is already bracing for a likely Republican takeover of Congress in November’s midterm elections. What’s Biden’s problem?

David A. Hopkins is a professor of political science at Boston College. Hopkins looked at Biden’s approval rating for The Signal at the height of the president’s popularity last April and then again in October after he’d lost most Americans’ support. Six months on, Hopkins sees Biden’s persistent unpopularity as the result of unfulfilled hopes: in the population at large, disappointment that the pandemic is lingering while inflation is driving up costs; among Democrats, frustration that the president has failed to accomplish much of his legislative agenda; and across the political center, a fear that he’s too beholden to left-wing operators within and around his party. It’s not just that the political context is different, now that Biden’s political identity is no longer tied to being the electoral alternative to Donald Trump. It’s that Biden is beset with new problems as the earlier ones compound themselves, while much of what the president has managed to accomplish aren’t things that earn him a lot of support from voters. As Hopkins notes, there’s plenty in American history to suggest that Biden could rebound from a first-term slump and win back public trust—and eventually re-election—but there’s also plenty in recent years that’s been very much unprecedented.


Graham Vyse: How do you see Biden’s polling numbers comparing with other contemporary presidents’ in the second year of their first terms?

David A. Hopkins: They’re low—taking the comparison back to the 1950s, when we started gathering modern survey data in America. Of course, you could argue it’s harder to be popular than it used to be. We’re in a more polarized era now, when there’s a real limit to a president’s potential popularity. Biden is roughly where Trump was at this point in his term.

Vyse: What factors stand out to you as driving Biden’s unpopularity?

Hopkins: It’s always hard to know. Certainly, there’s broad economic dissatisfaction in the country. People see the economy generally—and inflation in particular—as a problem, and history tells us that the U.S. public holds presidents responsible for its perception of the national economy. Considering that approval of Biden among Democrats is also really diminished since he took office—and his support is down among young Democrats, African-American Democrats, and Democratic-leaning independents—there may be some frustration in the Democratic base that Biden hasn’t delivered more on his legislative agenda.

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