There’s been a lot of attention paid to President Joe Biden’s falling job approval rating. And it is indeed going down, down, down. But along with confidence in the president, the public is also losing faith in the Democratic Party’s ability to handle the issues that most concern voters today. It’s been a long fall for both Biden and his party since they narrowly won control in Washington one year ago this week.
A new NBC News poll has Biden’s job approval rating at 42 percent among all adults, with a disapproval rating of 54 percent. That’s 12 points underwater, and it is roughly in line with a number of other recent surveys.
On one of the most important issues to voters at this moment — the economy — Biden is in a terrible position. Forty percent of those surveyed approve of his handling of the economy, while 57 percent disapprove. On his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, 47 percent disapprove, while a small majority, 51 percent, still approve of Biden’s work. But that number is down from 69 percent approval in April. Other polls show Biden underwater in the public’s view of his handling of national security, the border and other issues.
But Biden’s troubles are just part of the Democratic Party’s larger problem. The NBC poll is devastating for Democrats trying to convince voters they should be reelected in next year’s midterms. The pollsters listed a number of issues and asked voters “which party do you think would do a better job — the Democratic Party, or the Republican Party?”
Start with the economy. Forty-five percent said the GOP would do a better job, while 27 percent said the Democrats would — an 18-point advantage for Republicans. Then go to controlling inflation, a huge and growing concern among all voters. Respondents gave Republicans a 24-point advantage. On national security, respondents gave the GOP a 21-point advantage. On dealing with border security, the GOP advantage was 27 points. On dealing with crime, it was 22 points. On dealing with immigration, it was nine points, when just last year Democrats had a 6-point advantage. And on the general question of “being effective and getting things done,” voters gave Republicans a 13-point advantage.
All in all, it was a huge vote of confidence in Republicans, indicating higher voter trust on a number of essential issues.
Of course, Democrats still had some strengths. On dealing with COVID-19, they had a 12-point advantage — down from 17 points last year. On education, they had a 10-point advantage, the same advantage they had on the issue of abortion. On voting rights, the Democratic advantage was 5 points, and on election security it was one point. The only really huge Democratic advantage was on the issue of climate change, where Democrats held a 24-point lead. Climate change, which is not one of the voting public’s top concerns, was the only issue on which the Democratic lead was actually growing. On everything else, it was shrinking.
Why are Biden’s numbers, and those of his fellow Democrats, going down? Two reasons. The first is their performance in office. And the second is that the electorate is in a different place than it was in November 2020.
Biden is an unlikely president. Like many longtime senators, he wanted the job for decades, starting in the 1970s. But in all that time, virtually no one thought Biden would make a good president. His presidential campaigns went nowhere. He was a senator for life. Even after Barack Obama chose him to be vice president, Biden never appeared to be a natural successor, and, indeed, Obama himself did not see Biden as such. Then, at an age older than any other president, Biden found himself in the bizarre circumstances of the 2020 election and emerged as the candidate many Americans wanted to see as the anti-Trump.
But now that he is in office — and, at age 78, moving more slowly than he did in his prime — he is still the Joe Biden many Americans did not think of as presidential material. He promised to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the pandemic came back with a vengeance. He promised to improve the economy, and growth has slowed, with inflation becoming a critical concern. He promised to restore America’s place in the world and then led a disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. He promised to fix President Trump’s immigration policies and instead brought chaos to the border. Of course his job approval rating is going down. How could it not?
As for Democrats, the party brought an activist agenda to Capitol Hill, only to see the ground shift under their feet. In 2020, they seized on the pandemic to press for long-desired social welfare policies. They proposed giant spending programs that would rival the New Deal and Great Society. They told Biden he could be a new FDR or LBJ. But their massive government spending helped fuel the inflation that is eating away at Americans’ quality of life. Even as soaring inflation negates wage gains, all many Democrats can think to do is push for still more spending.
For many years, the Gallup Organization has asked Americans whether they believe government is “trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses” or whether the government “should do more to solve our country’s problems.” In most years, a majority says the government is trying to do too many things. Only on very rare occasions does a majority say the government should do more.
The year of the pandemic, 2020, was one of those very rare occasions. For a brief moment, a majority, 54 percent, said that the government should do more to solve problems, while 41 percent said it was doing too much. That had not happened in nearly 20 years, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But as quickly as it happened, the moment of support for more government activism disappeared. Asking the question again in 2021, Gallup found that a majority, 52 percent, said the government was doing too much, versus 43 percent who wanted it to do more. The old order of things had returned.
But Democrats in Congress, and President Biden in the White House, are acting as if that brief moment in 2020 still governs our politics. It doesn’t.