President Joe Biden has the worst approval rating after one year in office of nearly every elected president, except for former President Donald Trump. But a look across the Atlantic Ocean shows that things can always be worse for Biden.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a Conservative Party member, is mired in scandal over parties taking place during Covid lockdowns. His ratings are as low as Richard Nixon’s were when he resigned the US presidency in 1974.
Johnson right now has a popularity rating of about 24% among Britons, across different polling. (For comparison, Biden’s approval rating among US adults is about 41%.)
The 24% is low by both US and UK standards. Beyond the Nixon comparison, Johnson’s popularity is comparable to two US presidents: Harry Truman and George W. Bush late in their second terms. Truman had a foreign entanglement and a weak economy. Bush had the same problem.
Both Truman and Bush saw their parties suffer once-in-a-generation defeats in the following election. Their parties lost the presidency in blowouts and endured losses in the House and the Senate.
Something similar has happened in the UK to leaders when their ratings drop this low. Look at data since 1977 from Ipsos. Johnson’s popularity ratings right now is lower than 93% of all prime minister ratings since the late 1970s. The last prime minister to be this unpopular was Gordon Brown in the late 2000s.
Brown’s Labour Party lost the next general election, and he was replaced as prime minister. This has been a theme throughout the last 45 years in UK politics.
Every single prime minister whose popularity dipped to Johnson’s level failed to recover. They either resigned the prime ministership (like Tony Blair) or lost the next general election (like Brown or John Major).
Johnson, at this point, isn’t resigning and doesn’t face another general election for over two years. There is time for him to recover. The pressure to step down may ultimately get him, however, as a number of members of his own party are already trying to oust him. If enough Conservative parliament members want to, they can force Johnson from power.
Biden isn’t anywhere close to being in the same straits as Johnson. While Biden isn’t as popular as he once was within his own party, he is unlikely to face any serious challenge if he decided to run for another term for president.
Moreover, Biden knows that there is plenty of history of presidents as unpopular as he is improving their position and actually winning another term in office. Ronald Reagan (in 1983) and Truman (in 1946) were less popular later in their terms than Biden currently is and won the next presidential election.
More recently, Barack Obama, after the 2010 midterms, was nearly as unpopular and won a second term. Trump almost won a second term, even as he was more unpopular at multiple points as Biden.
Biden’s numbers could easily improve depending how conditions in the country change. His approval ratings have been tied almost directly to the economy and the state of the coronavirus. Inflation, one of the big drivers of economic discontent, is expected to lessen in 2022. The US is also adding a lot of new jobs.
The coronavirus situation, too, may be improving. New cases are falling, and we have no idea where we’ll be in 2024.
Even if the 2024 election were held today, it’s not clear Biden would lose. He’s basically running even with Trump, who remains his most likely opponent. Biden is benefitting from the fact that presidential elections are ultimately choices, and the non-Biden choice is as unpopular as he is.
Johnson, on the other hand, isn’t likely to benefit from facing such an unpopular adversary. Labour Party leader Keir Starmer isn’t beloved, but his net popularity ratings are as good if not better than Biden’s (depending on the poll).
Of course, most voters won’t get to vote directly for Johnson or Starmer in a general election. They’ll be voting for candidates representing the Conservative, Labour and other parties in their own constituencies (or districts).
On this metric, Johnson is in worse shape than Biden. Johnson’s Conservative Party is trailing in every single reputable poll to Starmer’s Labour Party. The average deficit is running in the high single digits. It’s one of the worst positions the Conservative Party has been in the last decade.
But perhaps the best way to look at Johnson’s vs. Biden’s situation is to understand that both may not win the next general election, though it will likely happen in very different ways.
Biden may voluntarily decide not to run because he’ll be in his 80s by the next presidential election.
Johnson may be forced out because of how deeply unpopular he is.