Presidents start out with high approval ratings because they’re winners, but as John E. Mueller, the leading academic on the subject, wrote in 1970, after some opening moments of bliss and accord with the public, all presidents tend toward a natural decline. In Mueller’s view, the decline is built in. Presidents win the White House by making extravagant appeals and promises to multiple interest groups. These voters become smitten and develop unreasonable expectations about what the president can accomplish. And they are routinely let down.
In Biden’s case, much of the current disappointment in him is the necessary price he must pay for promising a grand expansion of social programs — free community college, dental care for seniors, a path to citizenship for immigrants, for example — but failing so far to deliver. As these proposals have been downscaled or vaporized, some of the constituents who originally swooned for Biden have become disillusioned. Constituents are like that: Promise them $3.5 trillion in benefits and some of them will hate you if you only deliver $2 trillion worth. Biden also vowed to vanquish Covid-19, which he hasn’t (but is making progress on). Biden’s optimism, which has failed in the political marketplace, has made his agenda a punching bag for the press, and their critical coverage has contributed to his flaccid numbers. (It’s worth noting that Trump’s approval ratings didn’t vary much during his presidency, perhaps because he conformed to the expectations he created for both approving citizens and disapproving ones.)
Outside of feeding expectations, the variables that move a president’s approval numbers reside mostly outside his control. If he’s lucky enough to hold the rudder when the country plows into a crisis, he can expect to bolster his approval ratings even if he deserves no credit for the response. For instance, Jimmy Carter’s went up when the hostages were taken in Tehran. Later, of course, when the incident reduced him to a pitiful, helpless giant, his ratings folded. Both Bushes saw their numbers surge when after 9/11 and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Neither could sustain those numbers after they went to war. The highest poll point of John Kennedy’s presidency came after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a Dwight D. Eisenhower plan that Kennedy okayed. Ronald Reagan’s numbers went up after he was shot.
If the economy goes sideways on an administration, the president’s ratings invariably suffer, Mueller writes. But oddly, if the economy improves, the supervising president generally reaps no reward. If a president is victorious in war — or just ends one as Eisenhower did in Korea — he can expect a bump. But it’s not a sure bet. Biden has gotten almost nothing for ending the Afghanistan intervention, which is curious because he handled it better than President Gerald Ford did the fall of Saigon, and Ford got an uptick in his approval ratings. Mueller writes that the surest way to leave the White House with Eisenhower-like numbers — he peaked at 79 percent and departed with about 60 percent — is to be as likable as Ike or resign immediately after taking the oath of office. Nobody will ever match Ike’s avuncularity and seeing as Biden missed his chance to resign on opening day, he must seek other ways to reverse his numbers.
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