The reporting on President Biden’s approval rating is a steady-state feature of our national discourse. Right now, Mr. Biden is, depending on who you believe, anywhere from 8 to 17 points underwater.
Usually, approval ratings are the least interesting thing about an administration. The only survey that matters is the vote to reelect (or not). However, Mr. Biden’s approval ratings have a slightly different flavor. There is a sense that the free-fall may not, in fact, have a floor, a number below which Mr. Biden’s approval will not fall.
That’s probably wrong, although completely understandable.
The bad news for the president is that, according to exit polling, only one-third of the voters (33%) voted for him in the 2020 elections. Another 16% voted against former President Donald Trump rather than for Mr. Biden.
In comparison, about 38% voted for Mr. Trump, and 7% voted against Mr. Biden.
If you think about the 2020 presidential election as a four-way race, Mr. Trump received 38% of the vote, Mr. Biden received 33% of the vote, Not Mr. Trump received a respectable 16%, and Not Mr. Biden got 7%.
Consequently, no one should be surprised that the president has limited ability to persuade the population. Despite constant references to the 81 million votes he received, the simple reality is that just a bit more than 50 million people actually voted for Mr. Biden. That is not all that many in a nation of 315 million people.
As a practical matter, it means that when times get bumpy — maybe inflation is rising or there is a slow-motion invasion of the border, or you had a foreign policy disaster involving roofs and helicopters — there are just not that many people invested in your success. They didn’t vote for you, and they don’t care whether you achieve whatever goals you might have.
Team Biden exacerbated the problem by the campaign version of the “Seinfeld” show. That also results in a lack of public support for — or even public understanding of — whatever it is you want to do. Mr. Biden successfully ran a campaign clearly identifying himself as not Mr. Trump. He has, in fact, successfully been not Mr. Trump during his tenure.
Obviously, though, not being someone else only gets you so far. At some point, you need to be yourself and do something.
The other practical import of getting 33% of the vote is that the potential floor on Mr. Biden’s approval rating is much lower than most presidents. His electoral showing suggests that Mr. Biden’s floor is probably around 33% approval, which, should he ever wind up at that point, would leave him about 30 points underwater.
Are there precedents for those ratings? There are. Richard Nixon was in that territory towards the end. So were former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.
Mr. Biden has almost no native or indigenous support. What support he has above the one-third of the voters who voted for him is purely contingent on him not being Mr. Trump. The challenge there is, of course, that one’s state of being — in this case, not being Mr. Trump — is not something that can be enhanced. It simply is.
So, the shadow of Mr. Trump hangs over the Biden presidency (as it does all of us), and Mr. Biden’s own inability or unwillingness to campaign and win votes for himself in 2020 means that he may well start his campaign for reelection in worse shape than anyone since Mr. Carter. Or it may convince him to forego reelection entirely.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.
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