Presidents start out with high approval ratings because they’re winners, but as John E. Mueller, the leading academic on the subject, wrote in 1970, after some opening moments of bliss and accord with the public, all presidents tend toward a natural decline. In Mueller’s view, the decline is built in. Presidents win the White House by making extravagant appeals and promises to multiple interest groups. These voters become smitten and develop unreasonable expectations about what the president can accomplish. And they are routinely let down.
In Biden’s case, much of the current disappointment in him is the necessary price he must pay for promising a grand expansion of social programs — free community college, dental care for seniors, a path to citizenship for immigrants, for example — but failing so far to deliver. As these proposals have been downscaled or vaporized, some of the constituents who originally swooned for Biden have become disillusioned. Constituents are like that: Promise them $3.5 trillion in benefits and some of them will hate you if you only deliver $2 trillion worth. Biden also vowed to vanquish Covid-19, which he hasn’t (but is making progress on). Biden’s optimism, which has failed in the political marketplace, has made his agenda a punching bag for the press, and their critical coverage has contributed to his flaccid numbers. (It’s worth noting that Trump’s approval ratings didn’t vary much during his presidency, perhaps because he conformed to the expectations he created for both approving citizens and disapproving ones.)
Outside of feeding expectations, the variables that move a president’s approval numbers reside mostly outside his control. If he’s lucky enough to hold the rudder when the country plows into a crisis, he can expect to bolster his approval ratings even if he deserves no credit for the response. For instance, Jimmy Carter’s went up when the hostages were taken in Tehran. Later, of course, when the incident reduced him to a pitiful, helpless giant, his ratings folded. Both Bushes saw their numbers surge when after 9/11 and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Neither could sustain those numbers after they went to war. The highest poll point of John Kennedy’s presidency came after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a Dwight D. Eisenhower plan that Kennedy okayed. Ronald Reagan’s numbers went up after he was shot.
If the economy goes sideways on an administration, the president’s ratings invariably suffer, Mueller writes. But oddly, if the economy improves, the supervising president generally reaps no reward. If a president is victorious in war — or just ends one as Eisenhower did in Korea — he can expect a bump. But it’s not a sure bet. Biden has gotten almost nothing for ending the Afghanistan intervention, which is curious because he handled it better than President Gerald Ford did the fall of Saigon, and Ford got an uptick in his approval ratings. Mueller writes that the surest way to leave the White House with Eisenhower-like numbers — he peaked at 79 percent and departed with about 60 percent — is to be as likable as Ike or resign immediately after taking the oath of office. Nobody will ever match Ike’s avuncularity and seeing as Biden missed his chance to resign on opening day, he must seek other ways to reverse his numbers.
But can he? Following Mueller’s teaching, that would require an international crisis (China invading Taiwan, perhaps) or for Biden to raise expectations again. Nobody would wish a Chinese war on Biden and the process of raising expectations is futile unless you can fulfill them, and with slim majorities in Congress that will be a struggle.
How invested should Biden become in futzing with his dismal numbers? Let’s say he found a magical way to add another 10 points to his approval ratings. Would the Manchin-Sinema axis become more obedient and help pass his agenda? Surely not. Would it help his party in the mid-term elections? Likely not. Popular presidents lose in mid-terms all the time and Mueller says they’re not ever good gauges of reelectability. Would it make him a cinch to win again in 2024? President George H.W. Bush averaged an approval rating of almost 61 throughout his presidency but was beaten by Bill Clinton (and third-party accomplice Ross Perot) when he ran for reelection in 1992. Truman won in 1948 on some pretty rotten numbers, dipping below 40 percent that campaign year.
The single, undeniable advantage higher approval numbers bring to a president is relief from critical press stories about his unlikability. The less criticism you attract, the more that more people will like you. But being routinely disliked, as we’ve seen with Trump, doesn’t completely blunt a presidency. Trump remade the judiciary, upturned the tax code, helped defeat ISIS and created the Space Force (don’t laugh), among other initiatives.
If Biden wants to sugar his ratings, he ought to synchronize his promises with his accomplishments. In a normal world, Biden would be canonized by voters for delivering a $2 trillion spending bill. But because he originally proposed $3.5 trillion, he’ll be punished in the approval game for “failing” if only the $2 trillion measure passes. He’d be wise to consult the arc of the Clinton presidency. Clinton recorded worse numbers in his first year than Biden has, primarily because he failed to deliver on the promised fronts of taxes and health care. By switching to achievable promises, he rebuilt his approval ratings and like Barack Obama finished his presidency on a high note.
Stop overpromising and start overdelivering, Joe, and you might become the new Ike.
If presidential polls had a home on your car dashboard, you wouldn’t pay much attention to them. What gauge would you like on your dashboard? Send suggestions to [email protected]. My email alerts were the most popular email in their high school. My Twitter feed was voted Mr. Popularity by the social media establishment. My RSS feed thrives on disapproval.