Eight weeks in, President Joe Biden has overseen a huge Covid relief win, surging vaccinations and declining case counts. As Wall Street sets new records, forecasters predict an economic boom.
And yet, from his sixth day in office to his sixtieth, Biden’s approval rating barely budged. In one popular polling average, it has actually dropped by a hair.
That says less about the new President than about the hardened lines of division that America’s political polarization has produced. Biden’s ability to sustain early success will turn significantly on whether, with strong economic tailwinds, he can soften them.
Biden enjoys solid popularity so far, with slightly more than half of Americans approving of his job performance. That puts him around the levels of recent predecessors except Donald Trump, the only modern president never to reach 50%.
As usual in the polarization era, assessments break sharply along partisan lines. Near-unanimous support among rank-and-file Democrats allowed him to push the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill through a Congress narrowly controlled by his party.
But his upside-down standing among rank-and-file Republicans meant Biden couldn’t command the vote of a single GOP lawmaker. That demonstrates his challenge as he turns from legislation that can pass with only Democratic votes to initiatives Republicans can stop with Senate filibusters.
And history suggests his current standing won’t be enough for Democrats to keep control of Congress next year. The president’s party has lost House seats in 19 of the last 21 midterm elections. Trump, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, all of whom began with larger partisan cushions than Biden, all lost the House two years into their presidencies.
A red hot economy might tilt historical odds in Biden’s favor. Already poised for resurgence, then revved up further by his Covid relief plan, the US economy will expand 7% this year and 5.1% in 2022, Goldman Sachs analysts now predict.
Biden's first 100 days
That would represent the strongest years of back-to-back growth since the 1960s. After devastating job losses from the pandemic, Moody’s envisions a return to full employment by the end of 2022.
The political slogan Clinton once made famous – “it’s the economy, stupid” – would imply a large electoral payoff for Biden’s own standing and his party’s 2022 prospects. But that slogan means much less than it used to.
Issues of identity and culture now overwhelm attitudes toward the economy specifically and public policy in general. Changing conditions change the preferences of fewer voters.
In 2018, accelerated growth following Trump’s tax cuts couldn’t stop fellow Republicans from losing control of the House to Democrats. In 2020, the Covid-induced economic collapse hardly transformed a presidential matchup Biden led before the pandemic.
“Polarization mutes everything,” said University of Buffalo political scientist James Campbell, who wrote a book on the subject. He doubts economic boom times can markedly lift Biden’s approval and Democratic candidates next year.
Partisan identities have grown so strong, explained University of Maryland scholar Lilliana Mason, that Republicans and Democrats manage to look past bad economic news when a president of their party occupies the White House. When the other party holds power, they do the opposite.
“There’s not much room to move anymore,” she concluded.
‘All the rules get thrown out the window’
White House advisers insist the unique circumstances of this moment will upend that received wisdom as dramatically as Trump has upended the GOP. “If we’ve learned anything the last few years,” said top Biden pollster John Anzalone, “it’s that all the rules get thrown out the window.”
The direct link between the pandemic and destruction of normal life, he argued, will magnify Biden’s payoff for ending it. This month’s rushing river of Covid relief money, including the $1,400-per-person checks now flooding into tens of millions of bank accounts, makes the effects of government action unmistakable to Americans across the political spectrum.
“He’s going to be rewarded for a combination of leadership and an incredibly focused plan on Covid,” Anzalone said. Though Biden’s overall job rating remains lower, 60%-plus approval for his handling of Covid points toward the potential for political growth.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres sees a similar potential upside, bolstered by uncertainty about the GOP. No one knows whether Trump – beloved by most rank-and-file Republicans but repellent to a significant slice – will act on threats of vengeance on internal foes.
“You tell me what Donald Trump’s going to be doing a year from now,” Ayres says. “I have no sense of what the Republican Party’s going to look like.”
One question mark is whether Biden, as an elderly white Catholic seeking to tamp down divisions, can eventually make voters react less to identity issues and more to economic conditions. Trump ascended by stoking fears among working-class Whites in reaction to the nation’s first Black president.
“To have Biden as the face of the party takes some of the racial and religious risk away,” Mason observed. “What Biden might be able to do is move people’s brains back to the 1970s and 1980s, when parties were more confusing. It really feels like almost anything could happen.”