President Joe Biden’s approval rating is half a glass. It is open to Zen appraisal whether that glass is half full or half empty. More important politically than philosophically is whether Biden’s glass is filling or emptying.
Three months after his inauguration, Rasmussen’s daily tracking poll showed Biden’s total approval rating at 50% approve and 49% disapprove for a bare net positive of one percentage point. At the same point (April 20, 2017), Trump’s total approval rating was a net negative of two percentage points (49% “total approve” and 51% “total disapprove”). From the total rating perspective, Biden’s glass is half full – hardly overflowing but better than his predecessor’s.
Looking at Rasmussen’s subset group of “strongly approve” and “strongly disapprove” we see Biden’s glass half empty. His strongly approve measures 30%, but his strongly disapprove stands at 41%, yielding a net negative of 11 percentage points. At the same point in his presidency, Trump had a net negative of seven percentage points (32% strongly approve versus 39% strongly disapprove).
To appreciate Biden’s half glass, look at Barack Obama’s much fuller glass. On April 20, 2009, he was positive in both strongly approve (three percentage points: 33% to 30%) and total approve (10 percentage points: 55% to 45%). Biden’s ratings are lower across the board on both the “strongly” and the total scales – with lower positives and higher negatives in both.
The problem in Biden’s “half full” is that it comes from those respondents who are not strongly motivated. Among these “non-strong” respondents, Biden is gaining 20 percentage points and losing just eight percentage points (taking his 30% strongly approve to 50% total approve and his 41% strongly disapprove to 49%).
The concern in Biden’s “half full” is that these respondents are not as motivated and therefore could be more volatile and less loyal to Biden. In other words: When the going gets tough, could they get going?
The danger in Biden’s “half empty” is that it comes from those respondents who are strongly motivated. If they are more entrenched, then this could mean longer-term opposition that will not quickly dissipate. In other words: Even when the going gets good, will they refuse to go along?
To appreciate these distinctions in Biden’s support, look again at what happened with Obama. Despite being elected with a bigger share of the popular vote than Biden, Obama was viewed as having gone too far left. The result? America went to the right in 2010’s midterm elections and Obama’s Democrats lost a lot of congressional seats (six in the Senate and 63 in the House).
Obama’s midterm losses may have perversely helped him in his 2012 reelection run. Having lost the House, Obama was blocked legislatively from continuing to go left, let alone going further left. Obama won reelection but even so, he became the first incumbent in 180 years to win a second term with a lower popular vote percentage than his initial one (falling from 52.9% of the popular vote to 50.9%).
Biden’s “half glass” is filled with implications.
The more popular Obama saw dramatic attrition in his support just two years later. His support was not just greater than Biden’s overall, his strong support was greater, and his strong opposition was less than Biden’s. Two years later, even with a Republican House blocking his agenda, the residual of Obama’s first two leftward years eroded some of his initial support.
Biden is no Obama in popularity but is governing far more to the left. And because Biden is less popular, he is even more dependent on the left’s support than Obama was, which will continue to encourage him to lean left. If Obama experienced serious erosion of his stronger support by going less to the left, how much more vulnerable could Biden be with less support but going more to the left?
It is still early, and Biden still holds half a glass. More important than the glass, is what its contents are doing. Just three months into Biden’s presidency, this is far from clear. Yet one thing is very clear from Obama’s lesson: It would be better to start with a fuller glass if you are going to pour liberally from it.
J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.