If you follow US politics, you will likely know by now that President Joe Biden’s approval ratings are not good. According to a Gallup poll that was published this week, his approval rating is at a new low of 43 per cent. The greatest decline in approval is among independent voters, 61 per cent of whom approved of the job Biden was doing back in January, but only 36 per cent approve now. Another poll conducted by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist mirrored these findings. As Gallup put it, “among elected presidents since the Second World War, only [Donald] Trump has had a lower job approval rating than Biden does at a similar point in their presidencies”.
What does this tell us? Not much we don’t already know.
For one thing, as Gallup also notes, every US president since Harry Truman, who came into office in 1945, enjoyed first a honeymoon period followed by a slump. Is Biden lower now than Bill Clinton was in September 1993? He is, according to Gallup. But there are a number of likely reasons for this: the US is dealing with a more polarised political climate, in the midst of a global pandemic with surging Covid case rates, and Biden has just completed a very public withdrawal from Afghanistan that, while popular in principle, was much maligned in practise.
Polls have their uses. Certainly, in the heat of an election, they can help inform campaigns about which way the winds are blowing, which is helpful (except when it isn’t). They can also be used to take a population’s temperature on a given issue or policy, cutting across conventional wisdom and offering politicians a sense of what people actually want, as opposed to what conventional thinking says they want.
But the usefulness of any particular poll shifts depending on when that poll is taken and, relatedly, the relevance of the poll in relation to what else is happening at the moment.
It is September 2021. The midterm elections, which are often viewed as a verdict on the presidency up to that point — and in which Democrats will almost certainly lose one of the two houses of Congress, as the party in power tends to do — is more than a year away. The presidential election, in which a poll about Biden’s popularity will be most relevant, should he run again, is over three years away. If what this poll tells us is that this is a polarising presidency, as NPR suggests, then his approval rating will have a difficult time recovering. If the issue is Covid cases or Afghanistan, then what matters is what Biden does next. Put another way, this poll, in and of itself, will be useful to refer back to as a reference point, and not much more.
The other, related problem with fretting about polls is that of things that politicians, pundits, reporters and activists could be focusing on, this should be very far down on the list. If Biden wants to doom his presidency, then, yes, he should direct his energies to turning this poll around.
Alternatively, if Biden wants to be an effective president there are other, significantly more important issues to focus on right now. There is the climate crisis, and what commitments the US is — or isn’t — making to tackle it in the run-up to COP26, the United Nations’ climate conference in November. There are Biden’s infrastructure plans, still tied up in Congress, and the fact that a government shutdown is looming because Republicans won’t support legislation to fund it and raise the statutory cap on federal borrowing. There is the pandemic and that the US still, somehow, a year and a half into it, doesn’t have enough tests. There is the right-wing attack on abortion rights, voting rights and trans-rights. These polls don’t tell us, really, much of anything about what Biden is and isn’t doing on any of that.
These polls are a snapshot and snapshots are fine. But look too closely and for too long at any one snapshot and you risk missing the bigger picture.
[See also: What does Washington want from Aukus?]