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On to today's commentary...
When a president is inaugurated, they get a four-year contract from the American people. But that doesn't mean they aren't given frequent performance reviews in the interim, in the shape of midterms and a political environment that can make or break their agenda in Congress.
Things aren't looking great for President Biden at the moment. His job approval is mediocre at best, and quite low among critical groups like independent voters (NBC has it at only 36 percent) and is underwater among key pieces of Democrats' coalition, like those under age 40 or Hispanic voters. POLITICO/Morning Consult finds 49% of Americans - including 46% of independent voters - would grade Biden's first year as either a "D" or an "F".
But is this so abnormal in our highly polarized times? Haven't people been mad at every single politician on the national scene in the last decade or more? Let's put his numbers in context to see how he stacks up against other presidents at the end of his first year in office.
First, there's the comparison to Donald Trump, Biden's immediate predecessor. Today's Real Clear Politics average has Biden at 40.9% approval, and on January 20, 2018 they had Trump's at...40.1%. Biden's numbers have fallen further, due to starting a bit higher; Trump's job approval only started at a meager 46% percent on his inauguration day, while Biden's was ten points higher at 56%.
Biden's job approval is similar to Trump's at the one-year mark, but he also fell from a much higher starting point.
Where they also differ is in the underlying assessment of their characteristics. With Trump, there were a handful of voters who said "I don't really like him personally, but I think he's doing an OK job as president." With Biden, there's a handful who take the opposite view, "I like him personally, I just don't think he's doing a great job."
CBS found 55% of Americans "like how Biden handles himself personally", and in the same poll found only 44% approved of the job he's doing as president. And while I can't find CBS asking this exact question about Trump, in mid-2018 they did ask if people "mostly liked" how Trump handles himself personally. Only 28% of people - including just 56% of Republicans! - said they did. (Hat tip to Sahil Kapur for a tweet highlighting this finding.) Trump's job approval was never anywhere near 28%.
Then, there's the comparison between Biden and the man he served as vice president - President Obama. At the one-year mark, Obama's job approval was higher than Biden's is today - hovering just around 50% according to RealClearPolitics' averages. Obama's first-year drop was even larger than Biden's has been (a drop of thirteen points), though this is a product of Obama having a "honeymoon" that neither Biden nor Trump really ever had.
So on balance, Biden's job approval is a tiny bit better than Trump's but his decline since his inauguration has been sharper. Compared to Obama, the situation is reversed: Biden's job approval is much lower than Obama's was one year in, but Obama had the steepest drop due to his initially high numbers.
But what does this all mean for the next year? Let's look at the trajectory of those two predecessors. In Obama's case, between January 2010 and his first midterms, his job approval kept falling, hitting around 45%. In Trump's case, his numbers rebounded in that same window, creeping back up to around 44%.
In both cases, 44-45% job approval was not enough for those incumbent presidents to avoid seeing their parties take big hits in the midterms.
Past is not necessarily prologue in this case. Biden could recover or he could sink further. COVID-19 could (hopefully) become a memory or an endemic afterthought with as much political impact as flu season. The economy could recover. And even a national political environment that is weighing heavy on elections can't necessarily overcome bad candidate quality at the ballot box.
But voters are disappointed right now. (49% of them, to be exact, according to CBS polling.) They think COVID is being mishandled, the economy is headed off track, and that Biden is focused on the wrong issues. Some 36% in NBC News's polling say that Biden has been worse as president than they expected - a figure that is even worse than Trump's performance relative to expectations in the same survey four years prior.
While November feels miles away, the reality is that the midterms will be upon us before you know it. Biden is running out of time to give his voters what they thought they were getting when they elected him.
Thanks again for being a reader of Codebook. Do you think Biden can get his job approval back above 45 percent by November? Hop to the comments to start the discussion.
You can also catch my weekly radio show, "The Trendline", on SiriusXM P.O.T.U.S. Channel 124 airing Saturdays at 10 AM Eastern. This week's guests - Rich Thau of Engagious and Derek Brown, author of Mindful Mixology: A Comprehensive Guide to Low and No-Alcohol Cocktails With 60 Recipes.
(Cover photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images)