Doesn’t it feel as if everything’s breaking President Biden’s way lately?
His chief rival — whom Mr. Biden already beat in 2020 and whom Democrats, in a sense, beat again in the midterms — is facing criminal indictments and yet currently finds himself cruising to the nomination anyway.
The economy — which teetered on the edge of recession for two years with inflation rising and real wages declining — seems as if it might be on track for a soft landing, with inflation falling, real wages rising and the stock market recovering.
The backlash against “woke” — a topic Republicans seemed most keen on exploiting in the Biden era — appears to have receded significantly, whether because Donald J. Trump has taken up much of the oxygen; conservatives have overreached; or progressives have reined in their excesses and fallen back to defense after conservatives went on offense.
It’s probably too soon to expect these recent developments to lift Mr. Biden’s approval ratings, which remain mired in the low 40s. But if these trends persist, many of the explanations for Mr. Biden’s low approval will quickly become less credible. If his numbers don’t start to move over the next several months — with the wind seemingly at his back — it will quickly begin to raise more serious questions about his standing heading into the 2024 election.
To this point in his presidency, it has been fairly easy to attribute his low ratings to economic conditions. Yes, unemployment was low and growth remained steady. But inflation surged, real incomes dropped, stocks fell into a bear market, a recession seemed imminent, and voters could see the signs of a struggling economy everywhere, including supply chain shortages and onerous interest rates.
It’s fair to question whether economic conditions have actually been as bad as voters say, but it’s also fair to acknowledge these kinds of conditions can yield a pessimistic electorate. Two bouts of inflation that are reminiscent of today’s post-pandemic economy — the postwar economies of 1920 and 1946 — were catastrophic for the party in power, even as unemployment remained low by the standards of the era.
Historically, it can feel as if almost every major political upheaval comes with inflation, whether it’s the Great Unrest in Britain, the Red Summer in the U.S. or even the hyperinflation of Weimar Germany. If high bread prices can be argued to have helped cause the French Revolution, it’s easy to accept that 9 percent inflation (at its peak in June 2022) could hurt Mr. Biden’s approval ratings by five or 10 percentage points.
But if inflation has been what’s holding Mr. Biden back, it’s hard to say it should hold him back for too much longer. Annual inflation fell to 3 percent last month, and real incomes have finally started to rise. The stock market — one of the most visible and consequential measures of the economy for millions of Americans — has increased around 15 percent over the last six months. The University of Michigan consumer sentiment index surged 13 percent in July, reaching the highest level since September 2021 — the first full month Mr. Biden’s approval ratings were beneath 50 percent.
There’s another factor that ought to help Mr. Biden’s approval rating: the onset of a new phase of the Republican primary campaign, including debates. As the Republican candidates become more prominent in American life, voters may start judging Mr. Biden against the alternatives, not just in isolation. Some of the Democratic-leaning voters who currently disapprove of Mr. Biden might begin to look at the Biden presidency in a different light.
Perhaps in part for these reasons, this is about the time when many presidents see their standing turn around. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton’s approval ratings were clearly on the upswing at this stage of the election cycle — though both were still beneath 50 percent — as voters began to see and feel an improving economy.
We will see in the months ahead whether Mr. Biden’s ratings begin to increase. I wouldn’t expect it to happen quickly: Mr. Reagan and Mr. Clinton’s ratings increased by less than a point per month between roughly this time and their re-election. Barack Obama’s ratings increased at a similar, if slightly slower, pace from his post-debt-ceiling-crisis nadir a little later in the year.
But even if it is not quick, I would expect Mr. Biden’s ratings to begin to increase if these conditions remain in place. Today’s era may be polarized, but there are plenty of persuadable and even Democratic-leaning voters — who disapprove of his performance — available to return to his side.
If the economy keeps improving and yet his ratings remain stagnant in the months ahead, it will gradually begin to raise hard questions about the real source of his weakness — including the possibility that his age, by feeding the perception of a feeble president, prevents voters from seeing him as effective, whatever his actual record.