What Biden’s low approval ratings tell us

Justin Fan ’24

As of October 31, an NBC news report finds that 54% of Americans disapprove of Biden’s presidency. 40% of Americans view him favorably and 48% unfavorably, nearly identical to ex-president Donald Trump (38% positively, 50% negatively) during the same poll. Nine months into his presidency, a clear trend emerges: a shocking number of Americans see the country heading in the wrong direction. But what is causing this belief, and why are President Biden’s approval ratings so low? There is no single answer—a disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, compromises on key Democratic priorities, and falling economic confidence make up just a few major reasons on the list. 

On September 11, we witnessed the 20th anniversary of 9/11, marking two decades since the beginning of the War on Terror, a war of American intervention in the Middle East that cracked down on terrorist organizations, safeguarding world peace. What was initially assumed to be a quick war bogged down into a prolonged conflict. People across the world were scarred: service members in America and our allies, as well as civilians in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan. 

This chapter of American history would be concluded with the swift withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving billions of dollars of advanced military equipment, thousands of refugees fleeing the country, and the Taliban retaking control of the country. Pew Research Center polled that a large majority of Americans say the Biden administration has done a poor job (42%) or a  fair job (29%) in handling the situation in Afghanistan. Although the move was seen as long overdue, how we conducted ourselves during our withdrawal will be how history judges us. Because this event just occurred, many Americans lack confidence in President Biden, undoubtedly contributing to his low approval numbers.

Joe and Jill Biden attending a 2019 Iowa Cubs game – Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

In the past few months, President Biden had to compromise on key Democratic priorities—such as federal paid family leave and lowering the cost of prescription drugs—to try to get his Build Back Better Act passed. The legislation includes provisions for fighting climate change, expanding tax credits, and strengthening the social safety net, paid for by increased tax rates for corporations, capital gains, and those making more than $400,000 a year. Additional sections included the rebuilding of deteriorating infrastructure and investment into key industries and technologies, amounting to an initial price tag of 3.5 trillion dollars. Some key features of this act were drawn back to satisfy both moderates and progressives, instead, leaving all groups—moderates and progressives; Republicans and Democrats—unsatisfied. The gridlock within the Senate coupled with increasing internal conflict is demonstrated in the views of President Biden’s ability to unite the country. Just 26% say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country, down from 33% six months ago. 

Economically, the Biden administration focused on increasing the national minimum wage and expanding worker training, narrowing income inequality, investing in clean energy and infrastructure, expanding access to affordable healthcare, and forgiving student loan debt. However, COVID-19 impeded these goals. A majority of adults (63%) say they are concerned about rising prices for food and consumer goods. That is larger than the shares citing other economic issues—employers being unable to hire workers (42% very concerned), people facing eviction or foreclosure (35%), or people who want to work being unable to find jobs (29%). The pandemic left a big dent in the supply chain: cargo ships stuck offshore, insufficient numbers of truck drivers, and empty shelves right before the holiday season are probably the most obvious signs. The scarcity of materials and the rising price of freight have seen price increases in goods. Small businesses and large corporations alike were sent reeling due to these rapid changes, all while looking towards President Biden for a sense of leadership. 

Still, Biden’s economic policies (such as his increased stimuli) made many Americans hopeful about the future. Among all adults, 52% say that economic conditions will be better in a year. No one knows how long the shortages will last, but there are good reasons to suspect that this will be with us well into 2022. 

I want to reiterate that Biden’s administration is going through a rough patch: this period isn’t what’s going to determine favorability throughout the rest of his term. There are many reasons leading to Biden’s low approval ratings: recent external problems as well as internal discontent. Though some of these issues have their roots decades ago, it will be a difficult time for his administration as they balance damage control and furthering their agenda.