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(L-R) US Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), US Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), US Representative Blake Moore (R-UT), US Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) look on as US President Joe Biden participates in a signing ceremony in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on June 7, 2022. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

NY Times Polls on Biden and Trump's Low Popularity Don't Provide Enough Context for Americans' Foul Mood

If Congress had passed Biden's top-priority bills, he'd be more popular and viewed as an effective president, despite his age. But 50 Republicans and two Democrats got in his way.

Peter Dreier

A new New York Times/Siena College poll is generating a lot of attention. It showed that 64% of Democratic voters say they would prefer another Democratic candidate in the 2024 presidential campaign. One-third (33%) of Democrats say that their biggest concern is that Biden, who is 79, is too old to run for re-election. Another one-third (32%) say that his "job performance" hasn't been good enough to warrant another run for the White House.

Most Americans would have a much more positive view of Biden if Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema hadn't gotten in the way of Congress passing Biden's bold Build Back Better bill.

Young voters are particularly sour on Biden. The survey found that 94% of Democrats under 30 would prefer a different presidential nominee.

A separate Times/Siena College poll, released a few days later, found that nearly half of Republicans hope that the GOP nominates someone besides Donald Trump for president in 2024. Sixteen percent of Republicans said that if Trump were the party's nominee, they would support Biden, back a third-party candidate, or not vote at all.  Almost two-thirds (64%) of Republicans under 35 years old and 65% of those with at least a college degree said they would vote against Mr. Trump in a presidential primary.

Americans are understandably in a foul mood.  They've just lived through over two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the worst public health crisis in the nation's history. It upended every aspect of their lives—work, family, physical and mental health, and education, among them.

Biden ran for president in 2020 as the anti-Trump candidate. He promised not only to help bring the country back to normal, but to take it in a new direction after four years of Trump-sponsored chaos.

As president, Biden has promoted a progressive agenda that has even surprised some of leftist skeptics. He embraced much of the agenda of the Progressive Caucus and its grassroots allies in terms of support for unions, the environment, criminal justice, gun control, abortion, and other issues, but without the fervor that many Democrats, especially younger voters, had hoped for. He often expresses outrage at the reactionary stances of Republicans in Congress and on the Supreme Court, but not in ways that would mobilize public opinion. He has appointed liberals and progressives to the federal bench.

But the Times poll discovered that three-quarters of all registered voters - Democrats, Republicans, and independents—think the country is moving in the wrong direction. More specifically, 20% of Americans think that "jobs and the economy" is the most important problem facing the country followed by 15% who say that "inflation and the cost of living" is their top concern. In other words, 35% are worried about the country's—and their own—economic fortunes.  About 10% of all voters identified political division and the state of American democracy as the most pressing issue, roughly the same number who said that gun policies are the most worrisome problem. 

The Times/Siena College polls are basically popularity contests, but with only one contestant. The poll on Biden's popularity, for example, didn't ask voters if they think Donald Trump—or Florida Gov. Rick DeSantis, or another would-be GOP candidate—would do a better job. Or whether Trump and his Republican allies are responsible for why the nation is going in the wrong direction.

In the poll about Trump, the former president had 49% support among Republican voters, compared with DeSantis with 25%. No other potential candidate had double-digit support.

While 16% of Republicans said they would abandon Trump in 2024, only 8% of Democrats said they would abandon Biden in a matchup with Trump. The poll showed that Trump trailed Biden, 44% to 41%, in a hypothetical rematch of the 2020 contest.

The poll found that most Democrats, especially young voters, want another candidate besides Biden to run for president in 2024, but it didn't ask which other potential Democratic candidates—such as Vice President Kamala Harris, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Cong. Ro Khanna of California, Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, or Bernie Sanders of Vermont—they would prefer.

Nor did the poll ask which Democrats they think would have a better chance than Biden of defeating Trump or another Republican.

Trump's response to his defeat in the 2020 played a big role in weakening his support among GOP voters.   Among Republicans who said they would vote against Trump, 32% believed that this actions threatened American democracy. Some of the more dramatic revelations about Trump's actions uncovered by the House of Representatives' televised hearings on the January 6 insurrection came to light before the poll was conducted from July 5 through July 7, but other shocking disclosures came to light after the polling took place. That investigation into Trump's role in those events have certainly weakened his support among Republican voters.

The polls show that voters are angry and frustrated with the leadership of both major political parties. But these polls miss a bigger point. Most Americans would have a much more positive view of Biden if Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema hadn't gotten in the way of Congress passing Biden's bold Build Back Better bill. The bill, which passed the House but not the Senate, included significant funding for paid family leave, childcare, universal pre-K school, expanded Medicaid subsidies, job-creating and energy-saving infrastructure projects, and affordable housing. All polls showed that each of these provisions were very popular with the public. Likewise, Biden's standing in the polls would likely have improved IF these two Democrats hadn't stopped the Senate from passing a voting rights bill. 

If Congress had passed Biden's top-priority bills, he'd be more popular and viewed as an effective president, despite his age. But 50 Republicans and two Democrats got in his way. Biden used every tool in his toolkit to persuade Manchin and Sinema and twist their arms, but they didn't budge.

Yes, lots of Americans think Biden hasn't done enough about the economy, or crime, and some other issues.  Some of this has to do with Biden's governing and personal style, such as his tendency to avoid conflict, his infrequent public appearances, and his awkward speaking ability. He can be reassuring like a compassionate grandfather, but he is hardly charismatic.

On some topics, he seems at least a step behind. For example, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, Biden announced that he would appoint a committee to look into ways for the executive branch to make abortion available throughout the country—a list that he should have had ready before the court announced his ruling, since it was clear in advance that the Republican majority was going to make that decision. 

But most of Biden's inability to deliver on his key campaign promises has to do with the Democrats' slim margins in both houses of Congress and the intransigence of a handful of pro-corporate moderate Democrats who have undermined his agenda. Plus, of course, the terrible hand that the reactionary Republican-controlled Supreme Court has dealt him on abortion, gun safety, and environmental protection. (If you want to blame someone for that, blame then-Senate Major Leader Mitch McConnell for not allowing Obama to appoint a SC justice and Ruth Bader Ginsburg for not retiring when Obama was still president).

The Times poll on Biden captures none of this. Nor does it provide the respondents with any indication that the economy is actually doing quite well, based on many objective measures, like almost record job growth and a decline in the jobless rate from 6.4% percent in January 2021 to 3.6% percent in April 2022. Most Americans don't see those macro-economic indicators in personal terms, but they do experience inflation first-hand. That is reflected in the poll, which is just an up-and-down measure of Biden's popularity, based more on perception than on reality.

If the poll had asked voters, "Do you think President Biden deserves any credit for the economy's almost record job growth in the last quarter?" it would at least have provided respondents with a baseline by which to judge the president. Or the Times pollsters could have asked,  "Who do you blame for the failure of Congress to pass Biden's Build Back Better bill—which included federal funds for childcare, pre-school, expanded health care subsidies, and energy-saving jobs.  Biden? Senators Joe Manchin or Krysten Sinema? The Republicans in Congress?" That would have given voters some context to evaluate the president and some recognition that in our system of government, the president isn't all-powerful.

The Times story reported that few Americans rank the COVID-19 pandemic "has largely receded from voters' minds." In the poll, "fewer than one percent of voters named the virus as the nation's most important problem."

That's good news, but the poll didn't ask voters who gets credit for making progress against the pandemic, at least in terms of getting people vaccinated, and the subsequent shift in public opinion. Trump initially botched the government's response to the pandemic, but eventually, and reluctantly, had to deal with it. By the end of his term, about 19 million people had received at least one vaccine dose and about 3.5 million people had been fully vaccinated, according to statistics published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Today, a year and a half into Biden's term, 222 million Americans have been fully vaccinated. Many people and institutions contributed to this accomplishment—including public health agencies and state and local governments. And it may be true that Biden hasn't done a good job of publicizing his administration's role in orchestrating the distribution of vaccines. But shouldn't the Times poll have given voters an opportunity to state whether the Biden administration deserves some credit for this?

The Times poll is extremely damaging to the Democrats. Biden won't be on the ticket in November, but his low standing in the polls can only hurt the Democrats' chances to hold onto or even expand their seats in the Senate and House in the midterm elections.

Biden's top aides certainly had their own polls showing where he stood in public opinion, but of course they didn't release them to the public. The Times, however, did publish its poll and now it is the main subject of discussion in the political world, competing with the January 6 hearings for public attention, the war in Ukraine, and other news.

The Times poll is extremely damaging to the Democrats. Biden won't be on the ticket in November, but his low standing in the polls can only hurt the Democrats' chances to hold onto or even expand their seats in the Senate and House in the midterm elections. Republicans running in swing races for the House and Senate, as well as governor and state legislative positions, will be running against Biden as much as against their own Democratic opponents. At debates, they will challenge their Democrat opponents, "Do you think Biden should run for re-election in 2024?" Neither a "yes" or "no" answer will help them with voters.

The Times polls accelerates the public debate over whether Biden should run for re-election in 2024. He's said he intends to run again. He'd be crazy to announce he's not running. He'd become an instant lame-duck, have no leverage, and get absolutely nothing done, not only with Congress, but with foreign leaders, for the rest of his term.

All the other likely Democratic candidates for 2024 have pledged their loyalty to Biden and say they aren't even thinking of running for president. But the Times/Siena College poll has now catalyzed private discussions between would-be candidates, funders, and endorsers. If Biden announces that he's not running, it will start a free-for-all scramble among all the would-be Democratic candidates to line up endorsements, raise money, outmaneuver the others on key issues.

If Biden doesn't run, the Democrats will embark on a self-destructive war that can only help the Republican candidate for 2024, whether it is Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Rick DeSantis, or someone else. The Democratic wannabe candidates will raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars against each other rather than using that war chest against the Republicans.

Similarly, no Republicans have publicly stated that they will challenge Trump in the GOP primaries in 2024, but several are waiting in the wings. It is highly unlikely that Trump will willingly step aside to let other Republicans compete for the nomination. Even a weakened Trump is likely to win the Republican nomination. But it is possible that other Republicans—including  DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, Senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, Rick Scott of South Carolina, Governors Greg Abbott of Texas, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, and former Gov. Nikki Haley of North Carolina, and Trump's former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—will enter the GOP primaries. They will have to walk a thin line between embracing and distancing themselves from Trump, but all of them will support some version of Trumpism. Only would-be nominees Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Cong. Liz Cheney of Wyoming have openly criticized Trump. 

If any of them beat Trump in the primaries, or in the unlikely case that one of them defeats Trump for the GOP nomination, Trump will not concede and endorse someone else. He'll fight it all the way, even suing the primary winners and the eventual GOP nominee on the delusional grounds that the GOP nomination was stolen from him. He might even launch a third party bid, which he's threatened to do before. Under any scenario—Trump winning the GOP nomination, Trump losing the GOP nomination and suing his opponents, or Trump running as a third party candidate and attracting 10% to 25% of GOP voters with him—the Republicans will be seriously weakened in a contest with Biden or another Democrat.  

The Times polls help us understand how the public—and the core voters in each party—thinks about Biden and Trump, but without the context and nuance that go beyond the typical popularity contest that would explain why Americans are so angry—not only at our political leaders but also at the state of our democracy.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College. He joined the Occidental faculty in January 1993 after serving for nine years as Director of Housing at the Boston Redevelopment Authority and senior policy advisor to Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. He is the author of "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame" (2012) and an editor (with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin) of "We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style" and co-author of "Baseball Rebels: The Players, People and Social Movements That Shook Up the Game and Changed America" (2022).

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