Inside Biden's falling poll numbers: 5 reasons why the president's approval ratings have dropped

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WASHINGTON — After riding high his first six months, President Joe Biden has seen his approval rating steadily decline since June, with numbers plummeting after a tumultuous August rocked by soaring COVID-19 cases at home and a chaotic military pullout from Afghanistan.

Biden's job approval dipped below 50% in several polls for the first time last month, and this week brought new lows: Gallup found Biden's approval rating has fallen to 43%, a 6-percentage point drop since August and the lowest of his presidency. A new Pew Research Center survey released Thursday has Biden's approval rating at 44%.

For the first time, both polls found a majority of Americans, 53%, disapprove of Biden's job performance.

"We can safely say that he's no longer in his honeymoon phase," said Megan Brenan, a senior analyst at Gallup.

More: Biden approval rate takes hit from both Democrats and Republicans in latest Pew poll

President Joe Biden walks on the South Lawn after returning to the White House September 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden returned to Washington after spending the weekend in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.
President Joe Biden walks on the South Lawn after returning to the White House September 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden returned to Washington after spending the weekend in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

Biden's fall comes as his social safety-net and climate agenda are in peril as progressive and moderate Democrats battle over its size and scope. In 14 months, Democrats are at risk of losing control of the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections.

Perhaps most troubling for Biden: His support among independent voters – who helped carry him to victory over Donald Trump in last year's election – has cratered.

More: Biden's approval rating drops to lowest point amid rise in COVID, Afghanistan fallout

While Biden's Gallup approval rating has dipped among self-described Democrats – from 98% in January to 90% today – and Republicans – from 12% to 6% – the president has lost the most traction with Americans affiliated with neither party. Gallup found 37% of independents approve of Biden's job performance, a sharp 24-point drop form his personal high of 61%. He's lost the support of two-thirds of these independent detractors in just the last three months.

Here are five reasons why Biden's approval rating has reached a new bottom:

1. The rise of the delta variant

Perhaps the biggest driver of Biden's collapse is more Americans are questioning the president's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, coinciding with the surge of the delta variant over the summer and into the fall.

Although the Pew poll found a majority of Americans, 51%, have confidence in his handling of the coronavirus, it marks a 14-point drop since March. Gallup last month found an even lower number, 40% of Americans, said he was communicating a clear plan of action in response to the virus, down from 51% in June.

"There was an expectation among some that the crisis was coming to an end," said Matt Grossman, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. "Obviously, the summer resurgence ended those views, and with that came more concern about the economy and about restrictions – feelings of how much longer are we going to have to deal with this?"

More: Who is covered by Biden's new vaccine mandates and when do they go into effect? Here's what we know.

The FDA authorized booster doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for people 65 and older and workers at high risk for COVID-19 exposure.
The FDA authorized booster doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for people 65 and older and workers at high risk for COVID-19 exposure.

The president campaigned on bringing an end to the deadly pandemic by listening to doctors and enlisting a full government response. For months, as more Americans got vaccinated against the virus, Biden's strong marks over his handling of the pandemic was his strongest card, helping his approval rating stay comfortably above 50%.

The outlook looked good on July 4, when Biden declared "we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus." Then came an unforeseen explosion of the delta variant, leading to a rapid upswing in COVID-19 cases and deaths and pushing Biden to initiate new vaccination mandates that have pitted him against many Republican governors.

"I think the country is going through a lot right now," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week, also pointing to the "threat of COVID" when asked about the Gallup numbers. "That is concerning to a lot of people. We see that in polls as well."

"Even as they approve of the president's handling of COVID, that's still something impacting people people's lives."

2. The rapid fall of Afghanistan

As Biden's COVID-19 numbers fell over the summer, Biden also suffered from fallout over his withdrawal from Afghanistan, producing a one-two punch that has hampered his presidency.

Although Americans overwhelmingly say they supported the end of America's 20-year war in Afghanistan, a USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll Sept. 2 found only 26% approved of Biden's handling of the withdrawal.

The Taliban's rapid takeover of Afghanistan – after Biden told Americans it was "highly unlikely" – undercut Biden's campaign pledge to restore competent, steady leadership in the White House. Images of Afghans clinging to U.S. planes, and then the death of 13 U.S. service members from an ISIS-K terrorist attack in Kabul, fueled widespread criticism over his over his administration's preparedness.

More: For Biden, fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal abroad complicates agenda at home

Members of the Taliban drive in the Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Kabul on September 16, 2021.
Members of the Taliban drive in the Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Kabul on September 16, 2021.

Biden's approval-rating drop has occurred in two parts, according to Brenan, who oversaw the new Gallup poll: the first from June to July, attributable to the COVID-19 spike, and then another from August into September.

"We largely attribute the most recent change to the Afghanistan situation and the continued struggles that President Biden's having with COVID," she said.

Historically, foreign policy events don't have lasting influence on a president's approval rating because of Americans' short-attention span toward international affairs.

Brenan said it's still unclear how long Biden's Afghanistan backlash will last, arguing it also depends on what's going on domestically – "and obviously, right now we have a lot going on domestically."

"There are still some remaining issues with Afghanistan that could follow him," she said, pointing to the resettlement of Afghan refugees in the U.S. as one of those.

3. Unrest at the southern border

Biden has increasingly lost public confidence in his ability to address immigration after a months-long surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border that's exposed a struggle to manage the immigration system.

Fifty-seven percent of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center poll, said they don't have confidence in Biden's ability to make "wise decisions" about immigration policy, up from 46% who said the same in March. In contrast, 43% said they are confident in Biden's immigration decision-making, down from 53%.

The numbers were worse in a Sept. 16 Reuters/Ipsos poll that found 38% of Americans disapprove of his handling of immigration.

More: DHS vows to have findings within 'days' in investigation of Border Patrol's treatment of Haitian migrants

Thousands of Haitian migrants are stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border wading through the Rio Grande near Del Rio, Texas.
Thousands of Haitian migrants are stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border wading through the Rio Grande near Del Rio, Texas.

Republicans have seized on record migration to the southern border since Biden's inauguration, calling it a "crisis" and slamming Biden for not visiting.

More than 200,000 migrants were encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in July, the highest in roughly two decades, according to statistics released by Customs and Border Protection.

The situation was magnified further this week when a peak of 15,000 Haitian migrants arrived in Del Rio, Texas this week, prompting the Biden administration to expel the Haitians who entered the country illegally.

The immigration issue appears unlikely to go away for Biden before the 2022 midterm elections.

4. Growing anxiety about the economy

Despite Biden overseeing sizeable job creation after inheriting an economy ravaged by the pandemic, more Americans are pessimistic about the future of the economy.

Biden has repeatedly said the "Biden economic plan is working," pointing to a falling unemployment rate, job gains and other metrics. But the Pew poll found more Americans, 37%, believe that economic conditions will be worse from now than those who believe it will be better, 29%. Thirty-four percent said they believe there will be no change.

It marks a reversal from March when 44% of Americans said economic conditions would improve over the next year, compared to 31% who said it would get worse.

More: Your 401(k) and the stock market: It's getting bumpy, but experts say don't fret

Republicans in Congress have slammed Biden over rising inflation, which the White House has argued won't be permanent. Yet for now, the public remains concerned.

Most American adults, 63%, say they are very concerned about rising prices for food and consumer goods, according to the Pew survey. The poll also found 42% of Americans are very concerned about employers finding workers to fill jobs and 35% worry about people facing eviction or foreclosures on their homes. Another 29% are concerned about jobseekers not being to find work.

“When you ask people factual questions about how the economy is doing, they will often answer in a partisan way,” said Yanna Krupnikov, a professor of political science at Stony Brook University who researches public opinion and survey data.

More: Economy added 235,000 jobs in August amid COVID surge, worker shortage. Unemployment fell to 5.2%.

Republicans expressed greater concern about rising inflation in the Pew study versus Democrats, at 70%-56%, while 52% of Republicans versus only 34% of Democrats expressed concern about the employers not being able to find workers.

Because of political polarization, swings in public opinion on the economy and other major issues are often most concerning for a president within their own party, according to Krupnikov.

“These are the people who are most predisposed to defend the president, and if you are losing those people that is where the situation gets really challenging,” Krupnikov said.

5. Hyper-partisanship shortens 'honeymoon'

Among all presidents since World War II, Biden's 43% approval rating in the Gallup poll is the second lowest at this juncture of their presidency, topping only Trump's 37% in September 2017.

It's largely a reflection of hyper-partisan times in which fewer Americans are willing to say they support a president that isn't from their party.

In the 20th century, presidents of both parties have enjoyed approval ratings that at times ranged between 60%to 70%, barring major scandals. The days of such high public approval have disappeared amid bitter disagreements between Americans over politics.

Former President Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. speak after the fight between Evander Holyfield and Vitor Belfort.
Former President Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. speak after the fight between Evander Holyfield and Vitor Belfort.

Most presidents historically enjoyed a "honeymoon period" where opinion of the president remains high for longer said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston who studies party polarization.

“The last few presidents haven’t gotten that benefit, largely because of partisan trends. The bloom is off the rose for the Biden White House as foreign events and inflation at home have brought his numbers back to equilibrium.”

In September of their first year in office, Barack Obama's Gallup approval rating was 52%; George W. Bush's, 51%; and Bill Clinton's, 47%.

Trump and Biden have been saddled with increasingly weak poll numbers, by historical standards, as large swaths of the electorate harden opposition while supporters become more resolute.

“Biden is showing the same type of polarized numbers that Trump did, with in-party members largely supporting him and, even more so, out-party members resisting giving him credit where it might be deserved,” said Samara Klar, an associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy who studies political attitudes and polarization.

Grossman said Biden's approval rating is unlikely to improve much in the short term unless there's a major development such as a dramatic drop in the number of COVID-19 cases.

But complicating a rapid turnaround is Biden's battle to pass his reconciliation and infrastructure plans in Congress

"Generally when people see open disputes between the parties and within the parties, they sort of assume that proposals are more extreme and D.C. people are looking out for their interests rather than the people's interests," Grossman said. "When people see conflict in D.C., they kind of assume negative things."

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's approval ratings: 5 reasons why his numbers are sliding

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