Like Donald Trump before him, President Biden didn’t get much of a political honeymoon. Even before he finished his first full week of work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, an early February Gallup poll found views of the former Vice President were the most polarized of any first-term president at this point in their presidency in modern history; Democrats were overwhelming supportive, while Republicans were universally opposed. 

But, since the spring, Biden has lost most of whatever small ‘benefit of the doubt’ from voters he had at the beginning of his tenure. While it’s clear that a resurgence of COVID — in the form of the Delta variant — is one reason for the dip in job approval, worries about the economy and inflation, in particular, are also taking a toll. 

Four polls out this week show that Biden’s job approval rating has dropped anywhere from 3 to 10 points since April. For example, the Monmouth survey (their first since April), showed Biden’s approval rating at 48 percent approve to 44 percent disapprove — a nine-point drop in net approval since their April poll. Polls by CNBC and Quinnipiac show a smaller dip in job approval, while Marist (the only one of the four to have polled consistently since April) shows a drop in net approval of 10 points since April. The Marist data also shows a consistent downward trend in job approval over the last four months. 

Biden's Job Approval Since April

It’s easy to blame this overall drop in approval rating on the rise of the Delta variant. The most recent Quinnipiac poll found Biden’s net job approval rating on handling COVID had dropped 22 points since May. The CNBC All-America Economic Survey, conducted by the Democratic polling firm Hart Research and the GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies, showed a net decrease of 19 points for Biden’s handling of COVID from April. In other words, as Delta worries have gone up, Biden’s approval rating on handling the pandemic has gone down. 

At the same time, economic pessimism has also been rising. In the CNBC All-America Economic Survey, a majority of Americans (51 percent) say they are both pessimistic about the current state of the economy, and think it will get worse over the next year. Three months ago, only 37 percent were this discouraged about the economy. In fact, the last time the CNBC poll showed a majority of Americans this pessimistic about the economy was back in 2015. 

Americans also feel less confident about Biden’s handling of the economy. The most recent CNBC survey showed Biden’s net approval on the economy had dropped 10 points since April. Quinnipiac also picked up a drop in economic approval for Biden; the president went from +8 job approval on the economy in April to -5 in July. 

So, will Biden’s ratings bounce back once/if Delta gets under control? After all, if people feel more optimistic that we’ve really ‘turned the corner’ on the pandemic, they’ll be less likely to worry about another economic gut punch like we saw last year. Democrats, who continue to be more worried (and wary) of COVID overall, are also more likely to be spooked by this new variant. Hart Research’s Jay Campbell, one of the pollsters on the CNBC survey, told me that the biggest dip in economic optimism between April and July came from Democrats. Once the threat of the variant is gone, these voters (who are more supportive of Biden in general) are more likely to feel better about the direction of the economy. 

But, independent voters are also becoming more pessimistic about the economy and Biden’s handling of it. In April, 47 percent of independents in the CNBC survey said they thought the economy would get better, just 28 percent thought it would get worse. But, in July, that optimism had faded, with just 35 percent feeling confident things were getting better and 40 percent predicting things would get worse. In the Quinnipiac poll, Biden’s economic job approval ratings among independent voters dropped four points between May and July. These voters — who are less invested in partisanship and more sensitive to real-life changes and struggles — are going to be more challenging for Biden to win back.

It’s also unlikely that the jump in economic pessimism is driven solely on Delta fears. We’ve been hearing from Republican and Democratic strategists that inflation worries — and complaints about a worker shortage due to generous government support — are coming up a lot in their focus groups. A June report from the University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers noted, “[s]pontaneous references to high prices for homes, vehicles, and household durables rose to its worst level since the all-time record in November 1974.” Among independent voters in the most recent Monmouth survey “everyday bills, food and groceries,” was one of their greatest concerns. 

In other words, people are feeling the pinch in their pocketbooks. It’s not theoretical. 

Meanwhile, Biden and congressional Democratic leaders remain committed to passing a $3.5T social services spending package. Tested in a vacuum, the legislation is popular. Monmouth showed support for the multi-trillion plan at 63 percent — including 58 percent from independents and even one-third of Republicans. And, said one Democrat to me, a time of economic anxiety is a good time to increase spending on government programs that help sustain middle-class families — like childcare, healthcare and early childhood education.

But, a popular program on paper doesn’t always translate when it meets the reality of a political campaign. 

While many Democrats argue that the drop in economic confidence and rise in inflation can be attributed to COVID fears, Republicans have been working hard to place the blame on big-spending Democratic programs like the $1.9T relief package that Democrats passed earlier this year. With even more money getting pumped out the door, Republicans will have more ammunition to argue that Democrats - not Delta - is to blame for our economic troubles. Moreover, in times of uncertainty, many voters become more risk averse and less willing to support “big and bold” programs. Democratic attempts to add non-economic related priorities — like a codification of DACA - will also make it easier for Republicans to label this as a partisan wish-list instead of an economic life jacket. 

When looking at polling, trends are more important than top lines. While President Biden continues to enjoy a positive job approval rating (50.6 percent in the latest average), his disapproval ratings have been steadily increasing since the spring. Since the end of March, Biden’s disapproval rating has shifted gradually upward from an average of 39.5 percent to 43.4 percent at the end of July. While a three-point shift isn’t a “bottom is falling out” kind of deal, we are in an era where elections are being won and lost on the margins. Small changes can have significant electoral consequences.

Image: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

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