The former U.S. president Donald Trump has now been indicted in the state of Georgia on 11 counts of racketeering, conspiracy, and other crimes related to attempts to overturn the results of the state’s 2020 presidential vote. The new felony charges have raised the total number against him—across four indictments in federal and state courts—to a remarkable 89. And yet in a potential 2024 electoral rematch between Trump and the current U.S. president, Joe Biden, several recent polls show the two in a virtual tie.

After beginning the year with roughly half of Americans disapproving of his performance, Biden’s unfavorable rating hit 56 percent in early June, in an average of national polls, and has remained steadily in the mid-50s since. His current approval rating, 41 percent, is the second-lowest of any sitting president in the last 75 years at this point in his first term—ahead only of Jimmy Carter before Ronald Reagan emphatically defeated him in 1980.

In the meantime, news about some of the tougher issues facing the United States has been increasingly positive: Violent crime, illegal immigration, and inflation have all been in decline for months, with the unemployment rate at the lowest it’s been since the 1970s. Along the way, the U.S. economy grew by 2.4 percent in the second quarter of the year—defying many economists’ forecasts of a recession and humbling China’s mere 0.8 percent. So why would Biden be so unpopular right now?

Casey Dominguez is the chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of San Diego and researches the historical approval ratings of U.S. presidents. Part of the picture, Dominguez says, is that political polarization has made it increasingly difficult for a U.S. president to win or sustain the approval of voters belonging to the opposing party. Part of it is in a marked loss of enthusiasm for the president among Democrats, not least younger Democrats, and independents—voters with no party affiliation—while Republicans have represented a bloc of near-unanimous disapproval since he took office.

Historically, Dominguez says, American voters have looked at the economy as a proxy for a president’s performance, and Biden’s weak approval numbers broadly bear that pattern out. At the same time, a lot of Americans don’t follow political or economic news closely, so their perceptions of the economy tend to be formed through negative coverage from even months back. And so, the uncertain prospects for the U.S. economy early next year could mean even more uncertainty than usual for the U.S. election late next year … if, that is—and it may now be yet another big if—economic issues aren’t overwhelmed by Trump’s legal jeopardy or anything else.

Michael Bluhm: What’s going on with these historically low approval ratings for a first-term U.S. president?

Casey Dominguez: Well, any U.S. president’s approval ratings tend to be high—if not at their highest—when he first comes into office. At that point, he hasn’t yet made any decisions that anger anyone. So it’s not unusual in the least for presidential approval ratings to start dropping after Inauguration Day, as Biden’s have.

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