In a moment of deep political gloom, having faith in any politician might feel like a dangerous game. But starting with President Biden’s victory in the 2020 election and continuing into his first months in office, polls showed that Democrats were starting to feel more hopeful. Vaccinations for COVID-19 began to roll out en masse. Case numbers started to subside. The first stimulus checks under his administration went out in March, and Biden promised that, by July 4, the country would be able to start celebrating its “independence” from the virus.
Gimmicky, sure — but Democrats were there for it. A CNN/SSRS poll conducted in March 2021 found that 82 percent of Democrats had a lot of confidence in Biden’s ability to lead the country out of the pandemic, and 74 percent thought the worst of the pandemic was behind us, up from 38 percent in January 2021.
By Biden’s six-month anniversary in office, though, Democrats were starting to feel a lot less certain that Biden could deliver on his big plans and promises to return to normalcy. Now, more than a year into his presidency, Biden is facing sliding approval ratings and growing doubt — even among his own supporters — that he can restore the country to where it was pre-pandemic. There was a clear turning point for Democrats, too: the summer of 2021.
In many ways, those mere months were a perfect storm for Biden:
- He missed his self-imposed July 4 deadline to have 70 percent of Americans vaccinated, and the delta variant of the coronavirus hospitalized and killed thousands of more Americans.
- His promised withdrawal from Afghanistan was chaotic and much-criticized.
- Inflation and supply-chain issues worsened, despite officials’ claims that these issues would be temporary.
- One of Democrats’ big election-reform bills failed in Congress.
- And talks of Democrats’ sweeping social spending plan stalled, becoming less certain after West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema rejected its price tag.
Republicans, for the most part, had written off Biden as well as a new Democratic administration well before the summer. But during those months, there was also a noticeable dip in Biden’s approval rating among independents, which sank 12 percentage points between July and September, according to the Pew Research Center. Perhaps what’s most striking, though, is that optimism among Biden’s base, Democrats, also started to evaporate.
According to weekly tracking surveys conducted by YouGov, the president once enjoyed the support of large shares of Democrats. Per a June survey, 53 percent of Democrats classified him as a “very strong” leader. However, that number dropped significantly by early August, when a new YouGov survey showed that only 44 percent of Democrats viewed him in the same light. And by mid-September, that number dropped even further, to 37 percent.
It wasn’t just that Democratic voters started to lose confidence in Biden’s strength as a leader, however. During the summer months, YouGov also found that Democrats became less and less likely to believe that he could successfully bring the country together.
“If we recall how things were a year ago at this time, the vaccines were just being rolled out and there was a tremendous amount of optimism that the end of the pandemic was near,” said David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College. “That’s the way that the media and Biden portrayed the situation.” But, Hopkins said, the rise of the delta and omicron variants of COVID-19 were an unwelcome surprise that frustrated Americans. “Even though it’s not fair to blame Biden for the mutations of a virus, it does seem that he hasn’t been able to deliver on the ‘better days are ahead’ message he promised everyone a year ago.”
Things didn’t improve once fall rolled around, either. In fact, polling suggests that Biden’s standing among all voters — most notably Democrats — got even worse as time went on.
By November, most polls had Biden’s overall approval rating underwater. It wasn’t just that Americans were upset at his handling of the ongoing pandemic or inflation or a stalled legislative agenda — they also became less likely to trust that things would get better under his administration. That lack of satisfaction among Democrats was perhaps most startling, though. According to YouGov, Democrats’ happiness with the new administration continued to fade in the winter months and into this year as well. By January 2022, a Pew poll found that Democrats’ confidence in Biden’s ability to handle the pandemic and the economy, as well as other issues like immigration and criminal justice, had fallen substantially since soon after he took office.
“The ‘public opinion’ answer is that people aren’t terribly sophisticated about responsibility and blame. If you’re in charge right now and things aren’t going well, things are your fault. I don’t know if voters have a more nuanced view,” said Jennifer Wolak, a political scientist at Michigan State University.
So why was the summer a turning point for Democrats? The answer isn’t a simple one, and experts warned us that dissatisfaction likely increased little by little as the months passed. But factors like perceptions of the economy had a lot to do with it.
“The inflation numbers may not have registered with people until later in the year,” Wolak said. “They’re going back to normal more over the summer, traveling more and spending more — that’s when they’re really noticing that all of this demand is pushing the prices up.”
Indeed, inflation has long been a bugbear for the Biden administration. Inflation is at its highest level since 1982, with the cost of products like used vehicles and gas soaring over the past year. But for months last year, Biden’s advisors argued that inflation was temporary. Over the previous summer and fall, though, it became clear that it might be more persistent than they had hoped. As a result, consumer sentiment — a metric of how optimistic everyday people feel about the economy — dropped precipitously over the summer.
As our colleague Santul Nerkar wrote last December, rising inflation is closely tied to drops in presidential approval. In other words, Americans tend to punish presidents when inflation happens — particularly when very visible costs, like gas prices and grocery bills, go up. “One thing that we know very predictably about presidents is that their approval rating is tied to general perceptions of the performance of the national economy and the conditions of the country more generally,” Hopkins said. “If people think we’re in good times, then the president benefits — whether or not the president actually has anything to do with it.”
And although pessimism about the economy these days is often tied more to partisanship than actual economic conditions, Republicans weren’t the only ones expressing concern. YouGov tracking surveys found that even Democrats were feeling more and more anxious, with a shrinking share — particularly over the summer months — saying the economy was getting better and a growing share saying that the economy was getting worse. And experts warned us that those views of the economy are unlikely to improve unless inflation starts to fall.
Of course, it’s not just the economy that has Americans worried. Issues such as the ongoing pandemic and numerous failed campaign promises — voting rights, police reform and an expanded social safety net — have also impacted Biden’s standing among Democrats. According to Morning Consult, concern about the COVID-19 pandemic among Americans remained high from July 2021 and into this year; however, this polling suggests those fears increased among Democrats during the delta wave in summer and, again, during the omicron wave in winter. Watching the situation break down in Afghanistan likely played a role in Biden’s standing with voters, too.
Biden had campaigned on restoring bipartisanship in America and now, as president, was struggling to deliver — and some Democrats appeared to be souring on him as a result. “Biden sold himself as a pragmatist. His appeal was not one of personal charisma and personal inspiration. He sold himself as the guy who could get the job done that you needed to get done,” Hopkins said. At least for Democratic voters, the first job was defeating Trump, he said, but beyond that, “[Biden] was the guy who knew how to work the system and knew how to work with Congress and how to manage the government, even if he wasn’t someone who was personally inspirational.”
A decent amount of Biden’s current predicament is not unique to him, however. Many presidents come in with high expectations they can’t realistically meet, and Biden was facing an especially big challenge in the pandemic. There are probably things he could have done better — experts have criticized his administration’s response to COVID-19, and members of his own team have admitted they were surprised by the rise of new variants — but the course of the pandemic was always going to be unpredictable, and much of what’s happening is out of his control.
However, a more realistic message — something along the lines of “Hey, this pandemic will probably be around for a while regardless of what we do, and it might keep wreaking havoc on our economy, too” — wasn’t likely to endear Biden to Americans both desperate for both a return to life before the COVID-19 pandemic and eager to get former President Donald Trump out of office. Biden may have made things worse for himself by promising to work across the aisle, which was always going to be an uphill battle. Mostly, though, Biden’s current political morass may have been exactly what he signed up for when he took the helm of the country during a global pandemic. To dispel the gloom that’s enveloping some of his supporters, he’ll have to make people feel better about the pandemic and the economy as well as fulfill more campaign promises — which, as the past year has shown, turns out to be much easier said than done.
“Biden is just facing a dilemma that has bedeviled pretty much everyone who came before him, especially when you happen to be in office when times are rough and the demands can’t easily be satisfied,” Hopkins told us. “In principle, it would be nice if we kind of, you know, reset ourselves closer to reality. But I wouldn’t expect any president to try to do that, because all they might do is just further disappoint people.”
Mary Radcliffe contributed research.