How many voters will stick with Biden?

President Biden
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Responding to the deaths of 13 service members and the wounding of 18 others in Afghanistan, President Biden stated the obvious: “Been a tough day.” Eight months into his presidency, these are tough days. Our withdrawal from Afghanistan is “messy,” as Biden has ruefully acknowledged. COVID-19 is filling up hospital beds and intensive care units. The Supreme Court has reversed Biden executive orders on immigration and rent relief. Biden’s honeymoon, such as it was, is over.        

Low polling numbers often show how many people stick with you through good times and bad. Back in 1992, Bill Clinton was beset by a series of scandals that pundits believed would surely end his presidential bid. In a 1970 letter to his draft board, Clinton wrote that people “have come to find themselves still loving their country but loathing the military,” stating he would not serve in order to maintain his “political viability within the system.” Shortly thereafter, Gennifer Flowers divulged telephone conversations that appeared to confirm Clinton’s 12-year extramarital affair with her. On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, Clinton pleaded with voters to make the election about them, not him, promising, “I’ll be there for you until the last dog dies.” Clinton’s second place finish made him “the comeback kid.”

Being there until the last dog dies has become a political mantra for measuring presidential support. Barely into his first term, Clinton hit several low points. In 1993, he authorized the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military. As Clinton recalled, “In the short run, I got the worst of both worlds — I lost the fight [to openly admit gays in the military], and the gay community was highly critical of me for the compromise.” 

That same year Clinton introduced his sweeping overhaul of the health care system. Both were deeply unpopular. Gallup found 55 percent disapproved of Clinton’s handling of gay rights, and 58 percent disliked his health care proposal. By June 1993, Clinton’s job approval sank to 37 percent. The next year Republicans seized control of Congress.

Like Clinton, Joe Biden has run into strong headwinds. A recent NBC News poll found Biden’s approval rating fell from a healthy 53 percent approve/39 percent disapprove in April to 49 percent approve/48 percent disapprove. The survey contained several ominous warnings. Only 25 percent liked Biden’s management of Afghanistan; support for his control of the coronavirus pandemic fell 16 points to 53 percent; and approval for his handling of the economy stood at 47 percent. Particularly noteworthy was Biden’s decline among independents: only 46 percent supported his approach to COVID-19, while just 45 percent liked his economic management. Independents were crucial to Biden’s victory in 2020 — he won 54 percent of their votes.

In presidential politics, how many voters stick with you matters. A stalemate in the Korean War saw Harry Truman’s approval drop to 22 percent — an all-time low in the history of the Gallup poll. In 1968, the Vietnam War saw Lyndon Johnson’s support fall to 35 percent. Watergate slashed Richard Nixon’s remaining stalwarts to a mere 25 percent. Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon saw his ratings drop to 37 percent. By 1979, Jimmy Carter’s support fell to 28 percent, prompting Carter to deliver his infamous “Malaise Speech.” In 1982, a 10.8 percent unemployment rate saw Ronald Reagan’s approval fall to his record low of 35 percent.

George H. W. Bush headed into his 1992 reelection campaign with just 29 percent support. The 2008 financial crisis saw George W. Bush’s ratings fall to 25 percent. Three times during his presidency, Barack Obama hit low marks of 38 percent. And Donald Trump began his presidency with just 34 percent support, the only president never to hit 50 percent approval in any Gallup poll. 

Lyndon Johnson knew that presidential popularity was precious. Shortly after winning a historic landslide in 1964, Johnson told administration lobbyists that he wanted to accelerate the pace of congressional legislation before his sky-high approval ratings began to fall: “I was just elected by the biggest popular margin in the history of the country, fifteen million votes. Just by the natural way people think and because Barry Goldwater scared the hell out of them, I have already lost two of these fifteen and am probably getting down to thirteen. If I get into any fight with Congress, I have already lost another couple of million, and if I have to send any more boys into Vietnam, I may be down to eight million by the end of the summer.”

Johnson lost those votes and more, renouncing a reelection bid and unable to escape the daily war protestors just outside the White House gates.   

Presidential popularity is not ephemeral. Shortly after winning reelection in 2004, George W. Bush claimed he had acquired “political capital” and was determined to spend it by “spreading freedom” in the Middle East. Today, Joe Biden has spent some of his precious political capital. How much and whether the withdrawal of public support is temporary or permanent no one knows. But how many voters stick with Joe Biden until, as Bill Clinton put it, “the last dog dies” will say much about how his presidency ends. 

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. His latest book is “What Happened to the Republican Party?”

Tags afghan withdrawal Afghanistan War Barack Obama Bill Clinton Donald Trump Jimmy Carter Joe Biden presidential approval ratings

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