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The U.S. President in the Court of Public Opinion

The Signal
“There would be plenty of people who aren’t thrilled about him who’d still crawl over glass to vote for him over a Republican. That’s a fact of our political lives these days.”
Great Expectations
Why are Joe Biden’s approval ratings dropping in U.S. opinion polls? David A. Hopkins on presidential popularity in a polarized age.
Millions of Americans have lost their once-considerable enthusiasm for President Joe Biden, as his popularity hit a record low this week. About 43.8 percent of U.S. voters approve of Biden’s performance, while 50.5 percent disapprove, according to the daily polling average calculated by FiveThirtyEight. That’s a sharp contrast from the first six months of his term when his approval ratings typically ranged between 52 and 54 percent. His popularity began dropping in late July, and his net rating turned negative at the end of August. Since then, voters’ opinions of the president have only worsened. What happened?
David A. Hopkins, a professor of political science at Boston College, analyzed Biden’s strong approval rating in April in an interview at The Signal. The difference today, Hopkins says, is that Covid-19’s Delta variant and an erratic economy eroded the American public’s springtime optimism about recovery from the pandemic. To Hopkins, the botched withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August led to persistently negative media coverage, further damaging the president’s reputation. Unlike the decision to leave Afghanistan, in Hopkins’s view, the pandemic and the economy are largely outside Biden’s control—and his approval rating could significantly recover next year if the pandemic winds down and the economy picks up. The president’s approval ratings matter, Hopkins says, because even a percentage point or two can make the difference between winning and losing an election in a time when partisan polarization has divided the U.S. electorate into nearly equal blocs. As Hopkins sees it, Biden’s unpopularity today is also making it harder to push through his major legislative goals—an infrastructure bill, along with a budget-reconciliation bill to expand the social-safety net and address climate change.
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Michael Bluhm: What’s driving these shifts in American public opinion about Biden, and what do you think they mean?
David A. Hopkins: It’s hard to prove what causes these changes in opinion, but we can make some reasonable inferences based on the timing of the change.
One thing has been Covid. In the spring, it looked like we had rounded the final curve in recovery, on both infection rates and economic performance. Today, it’s a less rosy picture. The Delta surge over the summer likely contributed to the decline in Biden’s approval—partially because people are less optimistic in general: It doesn’t look like Covid’s going away soon.
Also, when you’re scared about the virus, you’re not going out, and spending money; you’re not back to your old lifestyle; and the effects on economic performance start to appear. We’ve had disappointing job-growth and GDP figures. The president, based on history, ultimately takes the blame when the economy isn’t performing as well as people think it should be. That’s a big part of the picture.
On top of that, the withdrawal from Afghanistan in August produced the first sustained, negative press coverage of the Biden presidency. The mainstream media covered that very extensively and very critically. Biden was portrayed as having blundered in both the decision to withdraw and the execution of the withdrawal. That seems to have coincided with a drop in his approval, if we look at the survey data.
More from David A. Hopkins at The Signal:
Voters aren’t necessarily right to hold the president accountable for the economy. Lots of factors that the president has absolutely nothing to do with affect economic performance. Covid is not Joe Biden’s fault. The mutation of the variants is not his fault. Even if people aren’t consciously holding him responsible, they still have a bedrock assumption that if things are going wrong with the economy, the president should do something about it. If they don’t see enough action, they may question their approval of the president, whether or not that’s a fair judgment.”
Midterm elections are a referendum on the president. That’s a predictable pattern. If the president isn’t popular, you can anticipate a substantial swing in favor of the opposition party. The Republicans are so close to controlling both houses of Congress that they don’t need a big swing to wind up winning them back in 2022.”
The optimistic take if you’re the president today is that we’re just temporarily delayed in achieving a true recovery. If next summer, the U.S. is past the Covid problem, and the economy is humming, and the electorate is fairly satisfied with their circumstances—heading into the midterm elections, that’s what you’d hope for, if you were Joe Biden.”
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Meanwhile: How is China’s crackdown on civil society affecting life in Hong Kong?
Under pressure from Beijing, the University of Hong Kong is now planning to remove a sculpture commemorating the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989. At the same time, Hong Kong primary schools are seeing declining enrollment as the government imposes a new program of “patriotic education.” I asked Glacier Kwong, a pro-democracy activist from Hong Kong who recently spoke with me here at The Signal on China’s broader repression in the territory, about how education is changing there as Beijing tightens its grip. —Graham Vyse
Kwong: I’m still really close friends with my secondary-school teachers, and right after the national-security law was implemented, one of them told me, “I took a security-guard-license exam and got the license, so in case things happen, I can just go and be a security guard.” He was the best teacher I’ve ever had in my life. He made me capable of completing my university exams and helped me develop an interest in philosophy, which I majored in for my bachelor’s degree. He changed how I see things and helped me develop really good values.
He always talked about Chinese culture at school—Chinese philosophy and how it relates to real-life situations—but he can no longer teach these things now that the law is implemented, because most of them are kind of edgy. If he ends up touching on politics, it would put him at risk. It makes me so sad, because these things that affected me so much—that I gained so much from—now they can’t be passed on to other students.
Some schools hold assemblies about June 4th, teaching what happened before and after the massacre, and I don’t think that will happen anymore. Removing the statue at the University of Hong Kong is a complete compromise of academic freedom and a destruction of the historical record. It’s an attempt by the government to silence dissidents and repress everyone who tries to remember what happened—because the fight between Beijing and Hong Kongers is now a fight about whether we can remember and document what happened so the  historical facts won’t be lost.
[The U.S. law firm] Mayer Brown, which was representing the University of Hong Kong on this issue, backed down and said it wouldn’t represent the university anymore. This is a clear example of how international pressure could work to deter Beijing—at least they won’t be represented by such a good American law firm—but generally, I do see a further deterioration of freedom of expression in Hong Kong.
Beijing is basically attempting to brainwash young people in primary schools, feeding them propaganda saying that the national-security law restored peace and stability in Hong Kong and that the Chinese Communist Party is a progressive and open ruling power. These things are simply not true. I think they understand perfectly why our generation turned out to be “rioters.” It’s because we have been nurtured into critical thinking—nurtured to question the system and the society. They’re scared of that. They’re trying to kill every possibility that the younger generation turns into us. They’re trying to kill that in the womb.
For more from Glacier Kwong on Beijing’s increasing control over Hong Kong and what its means for the island’s pro-democracy movement …
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