Biden’s issue-approval deficit should both please and alarm Republicans

Former US Vice President and Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden speaks about COVID-19, known as the Coronavirus, during a press event in Wilmington, Delaware on March 12, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

The Briefing, Vol. XI, Issue 42

October 23, 2023

This week:

  • House Speaker race expands with no end in sight
  • Biden’s approval deficit and its potential danger to Republicans
  • Will Biden get a serious primary challenger this week?


House Speaker: The House still needs a Speaker. Given current events, it probably needs one more urgently than it usually does. 

After Rep. Jim Jordan’s (R-Ohio) failure to win the speakership after three tries, the race for Speaker has expanded into a nine-way contest with no clear favorite. The main problem is that none of the nine may be capable of inspiring the almost-unanimous support that would be required from Republicans in order to win without Democratic help. This could lead ultimately to a bipartisan coalition choosing a new Speaker as we speculated last week, but we are probably still a long way from anything like that happening.

The usual suspects who helped a unanimous Democratic Caucus oust former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) are unlikely to back someone like Pete Sessions (R-Texas) or Tom Emmer (R), both veterans of House Republican Leadership. Emmer additionally draws ire from former President Donald Trump (R), having voted against overturning the 2020 election in his favor. 

Meanwhile, the same Republican members who defeated Jordan’s bid for the speakership are likely also to refuse to support someone like conservative Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.).  

Meanwhile, Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Mich.) is making a bid for a temporary Speakership, selling his candidacy on the fact that he is older, lacks ambition for leadership, and would step down at the end of the year after finishing the budget.

A question in the minds of some members is whether Republicans want a Speaker who voted to overturn the 2020 election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania. Democrats lack such compunction — Nancy Pelosi told reporters in 2017 that concerns over “voter suppression” and Russian collusion would justify holding a vote to overturn the 2016 election, as many House Democrats wanted to and tried to do. (They failed to find a senator who would second their objections on the House floor.) Note that this would justify voting to overturn all elections, since Democrats make allegations of “voter suppression” every time they lose.

But in the meantime, it is noteworthy that seven of the nine Republican candidates for Speaker voted to object to the slates of electors from Arizona or Pennsylvania or both on Jan. 6, 2021. The other one who did not was Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.).

President 2024

Biden approval: A series of new presidential polls show apparently good news for Donald Trump’s bid to return to the White House. According to CNBC, Trump leads Biden by four points, 46 to 42 percent. Trump also led in two new polls last week — Emerson and Harvard-Harris. And yet another poll, this one of swing states, suggests that Trump leads Biden in four swing states he lost in 2020 — Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

This sounds good if you like Trump, but note the unusual context in which these polls are being taken.

Biden is historically unpopular, and he has hit new all-time lows this month, according to a new survey from Ipsos that looked at his approval rating on a number of key issues important to voters. 

Biden’s approval rating on handling of the economy, for example, has fallen this month to 36 percent, the lowest level of his presidency so far. His disapproval rating on this issue is 61 percent, which is not the highest. Still, the net disapproval here is striking, especially considering that the job market remains relatively robust, and gasoline prices, although high, have still not come anywhere close to their summer 2022 highs in most of the country.

It is evident that inflation, despite its abstract nature, is something voters genuinely notice in their day-to-day lives, and it remains unacceptably high. On inflation specifically, Biden’s approval is now a net negative 40 percent, tied for the all-time worst of his presidency.

This issue is especially bad because people don’t like the cure for inflation, either. Consider that the environment for homebuyers and homeowners alike has become significantly worse because of the high interest rates that are arguably necessary to tackle inflation. Nobody likes the idea of taking out an 8 percent mortgage, especially when rates were below 3 percent in recent memory, and so it is now harder both to buy and to sell a home.

On crime, the Ipsos survey puts Biden at 33 percent approval, an all time low, and 64 percent disapproval, tied for the all-time high. On climate change, Biden’s rating has fallen to 39 percent approval, another all-time low, versus 57 percent disapproval, a new all-time high.

It is also worth noting that 70 percent of Americans disapprove of how Biden is handling immigration — an astounding figure that likely reflects discontent mostly on the Right but probably some also on the Left.

Ukraine reversal: One of Biden’s best issues throughout his term has been the Ukraine War. But according to Ipsos, his approval rating on the issue of Ukraine is now down to 41 percent approval, with 56 percent disapproval. This is tied with the rating he received in the Ipsos issue survey of January 2022, just before the war started. Recall that at that time, his administration was being accused of slow-walking aid that Ukraine needed to resist an expected invasion. Although his rating on the issue of Ukraine soared after the invasion in February 2022, it has since reverted to net-negative issue. This political reality might be driving at least some Republican skepticism about the war in Ukraine.

Republicans might be pleased to see Biden’s polling so low. But in fact, they should also be a bit alarmed about it. Any number of things could improve over the next 12 months, before next November’s presidential election. High interest rates, increased productivity, or an end to the Russia-Ukraine war could help curb inflation. Any number of other things could get better, too, convincing the public that maybe Biden’s presidency is a better alternative than a return to Trump.

In short, especially given that some polling has Biden tied with Trump despite all of his deficits on issues, there some reason to worry that he is cratering too early. It makes him more likely to recover some ground before the election, much like Barack Obama did in 2012. 

Then again, things could also get worse for the country, and for Biden, in the next 12 months.

Dean Phillips: In addition to all of the other challenges Biden faces, will he now draw a serious primary opponent? Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), whom we have previously mentioned as a possible challenger to Biden, has pulled a permit to hold a rally in Concord, N.H. at the State House Plaza this Friday. Friday also happens to be the filing deadline for the New Hampshire presidential primary

This should call to mind how Pat Buchanan’s 1992 challenge undermined George H.W. Bush’s re-election campaign by exposing his weakness with a surprisingly strong 38 percent finish in the Granite State. With the exception of Donald Trump, losing incumbents have tended to show early weakness in their primaries, going back at least to Jimmy Carter and the modern era of presidential primaries.

Governor 2023

Kentucky: Polling in the Bluegrass State is, generally speaking, garbage, as Brandon Finnigan recently pointed out at DecisionDesk HQ. Out of the last 40 polls in statewide contests going back to 2014, 39 understated Republican support, and by an average of 8 percentage points. 

For that reason, surveys pointing to an easy victory for Gov. Andy Beshear (D) on Nov. 7 should be automatically distrusted. 

Still, a surge or comeback by Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R) is something that at this point can only be imagined, not predicted. Beshear’s massive spending advantage over Cameron still makes him a favorite for re-election. Leaning Democratic Retention.