Doesn’t it seem like everything has gone President Biden’s way lately?
His main rival — whom Mr. Biden already defeated in 2020 and whom Democrats, in a sense, beat again in the midterms — is facing criminal charges and yet currently finds himself up for the nomination anyway.
The economy – which has teetered on the brink of recession for two years with inflation rising and real wages falling – looks as if it could be on track for soft landingwith inflation falling, real wages rising and the stock market recovering.
The backlash against “woke” – a theme that Republicans seemed most eager to exploit in the Biden era – seems to have significantly receded, either because Donald J. Trump took much of the oxygen; conservatives overreached; or progressives curbed their excesses and went back on the defensive after conservatives attacked.
It is probably too early to expect these recent developments to boost Mr. Biden’s approval ratings, which remain. mired in the low 40s. But if these trends continue, many of the explanations for Mr. Biden’s low approval rating will quickly become less plausible. If his numbers don’t pick up over the next several months — with the wind seemingly at his back — it will quickly begin to raise more serious questions about his standing heading into the 2024 election.
Until this point in his presidency, it was quite easy to attribute his low ratings to economic conditions. Yes, unemployment was low and growth remained steady. But inflation rose, real incomes fell, stocks fell into a bear market, a recession seemed imminent, and voters could see the signs of a struggling economy everywhere, including supply chain shortages and crippling interest rates.
It’s fair to question whether economic conditions have actually been as bad as voters say, but it’s also fair to acknowledge that these types of conditions can yield a pessimistic electorate. Two bouts of inflation reminiscent of today’s post-pandemic economy – the post-war economies of 1920 and 1946 – were disastrous for the party in power, even as unemployment remained low by the standards of the time.
Historically, it can feel as though almost every major political upheaval comes with inflation, is it the Great Trouble in the UK, the Red Summer in the United States or even the hyperinflation of Weimar Germany. If high prices of bread can be argued to have helped bring about the French Revolution, it is easy to accept that 9 percent inflation (at its peak in June 2022) could hurt Mr. Biden’s approval ratings by five or 10 percentage points.
But if inflation was what’s holding Mr. Biden back, it’s hard to say it should hold him back much longer. Annual inflation fell to 3 percent last month, and real earnings have finally begun get up. The stock market — one of the most visible and consistent measures of the economy for millions of Americans — is up about 15 percent over the past six months. The University of Michigan consumer sentiment index increased 13 percent in July, reaching the highest level since September 2021 – the first full month Mr. Biden’s approval ratings were below 50 percent.
There is another factor that should help Mr. Biden’s approval rating: the start of a new phase of the Republican primary campaign, including debates. As the Republican candidates become more prominent in American life, voters may begin to judge Mr. Biden against the alternatives, not just in isolation. Some of the Democratic voters who currently disapprove of Mr. Biden might begin to view the Biden presidency differently.
Perhaps in part for these reasons, it is about the time when many presidents see their standing turn. The approval ratings of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were clearly on the rise at this stage of the election cycle – although both were still below 50 percent – as voters began to see and feel an improving economy.
We will see in the coming months if Mr. Biden’s ratings begin to rise. I wouldn’t expect it to happen quickly: Mr. Reagan’s and Mr. Clinton’s ratings rose by less than a point a month between about this time and their re-election. Barack Obama’s approval ratings rose at a similar, if slightly slower, rate from his post-debt-ceiling-crisis nadir a little later in the year.
But even if it’s not fast, I would expect Mr. Biden’s ratings to start rising if these conditions remain in place. Today’s era may be polarized, but there are many persuasive and even Democratic-leaning voters – who disapprove of his performance – available to return to his side.
If the economy continues to improve and yet his ratings remain stagnant in the coming months, it will gradually begin to raise difficult questions about the real source of his weakness – including the possibility that his age, fueling the perception of a weak president, prevents voters from seeing him as effective, whatever his actual record.