commentary

Who gives a damn about Biden’s approval rating?

By Mark Jacob

The news media is always talking about the president’s approval rating. Typical was an interview in which NBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked Kamala Harris: “Why do you think the president has such low popularity, favorable ratings, and you have even less favorable ratings?”

Well, Andrea, perhaps it’s because of the media’s hyperfixation on ratings. Or maybe it’s because we live in highly polarized times when Republicans wouldn’t praise Joe Biden if he brought the jobless rate down to its lowest level in half a century. Which he did, by the way.

The truth is, the news media likes to talk about popularity rather than policies because popularity is about famous people and policies are about boring and complicated stuff that makes journalists work really hard to understand it.

As Biden launches his re-election bid, his “low” approval rating is front and center with mainstream news outlets. But in reality, no national politician is likely to have a high approval rating at a time when media outlets like Fox News are constantly manufacturing dissatisfaction. In the past, people didn’t routinely blame the president for train derailments. They do now.

Bill Clinton’s average approval rating during his presidency was 55.1%. Can you imagine him polling that high today? Fox wouldn’t allow it.

So let’s get real. We need to dismiss this obsession with approval ratings and embrace the obvious fact that politics is about choices. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had low approvals and high disapprovals in 2016. But one of them won.

If Biden wins the 2024 Democratic nomination as widely expected, he won’t be running against a theoretical Not-Biden. He’ll be running against a Republican whose party has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. In fact, a Republican presidential candidate hasn’t won a first term with a majority vote since George H.W. Bush in 1988, when the Berlin Wall was still standing and the World Wide Web hadn’t been invented yet.

Put in that context, Biden’s 40% approval doesn’t look so bad. (All figures cited are from Gallup.) The previous 10 presidents had lower approval than Biden’s current rating at some point in their tenures. You have to go all the way back to John Kennedy to find a president who didn’t.

And remember: It doesn’t matter what Biden’s approval is if his opponent’s is as bad or worse. And a lot of Democrats and independents who don’t “approve” of Biden would vote for him anyway if a far-right candidate like Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis was his opponent.

Another reason to dismiss approval ratings is that they’re a notoriously fluctuating metric. Gerald Ford started his presidency with a 71% approval rating in 1974. It was down to 45% in the last poll before the 1976 election, and he lost to Jimmy Carter. George W. Bush’s approval varied from 90% to 25% during his two terms. And in the two years Biden has been president, it’s varied from 57% to 38%.

So why do the media talk about approval ratings so much? It’s part of the horse-race mentality. It’s storytelling. It’s not about accountability or any serious examination of an officeholder’s performance. It’s rarely linked to specific actions. The polling on how politicians rate on various issues such as the economy might help identify where they’re vulnerable or strong, but the overall approval rating doesn’t tell us much at all.

An approval rating simply doesn’t reflect how people will ultimately vote. It’s a personality contest. It determines how we choose the homecoming king and queen, not the valedictorian.

Mark Jacob is a former metro editor of the Chicago Tribune and former Sunday editor at the Chicago Sun-Times. You can find him on twitter at @MarkJacob16.