Reprinted with permission from Press Run
Amid breathless reports of a political "free fall" and reeling from the White House's "summer from hell," the Beltway press has leaned into the idea that Joe Biden's presidency is unraveling — that his approval rating is in a state of collapse.
Except it's not true. Instead, it's the media falling in love with their favorite Dems In Disarray storyline. The same media that shrugged at Trump's chronically awful approval rating.
In a typical, overheated dispatch, a CNBC report recently announced, "Biden's Approval Ratings Have Plummeted, and That Could Spell trouble for Democrats in Congress." First off, the idea that Biden's approval rating in September 2021, is going to impact the outcome of November 2022 midterms makes no sense. Secondly, Biden's approval rating has fallen a grand total of four points in the past month, according to the polling average tabulated at FiveThirtyEight. So much for the "plummet."
Is Biden's' approval rating down this summer? It is, to 46 percent. Is he in some sort of manic freefall as the press suggests, fueled by the troop pullout from Afghanistan and the Delta surge? He is not.
A true ratings collapse would be like when President Ronald Reagan's approval dropped nine points in five days when the Iran Contra scandal broke. Or when George W. Bush's cratered 16 points in three months following the launch of the disastrous Iraq War.
Here are the Biden approval ratings from last 15 polls posted at FiveThirtyEight, minus the Rasmussen surveys, which are notoriously pro-Republican: 46, 44, 47, 47, 49, 47, 48, 42, 48, 49, 47, 44, 47, 50, 48.
If you take out the high (50) and the low (42) data points, the results have been markedly consistent this month. Where's the plummet?
When a recent Quinnipiac poll showed Biden's approval at 42 percent, Newsweek announced, "Joe Biden's Approval Rating Continues to Sink, Shows No Signs of Improving." Newsweek then ignored the fact that the next seven polls released after Quinnipiac all showed him improving.
The cherry picking seems intentional. When a NPR/PBS voter survey in early September showed Biden's approval at 43 percent, CNN's Chris Cillizza pounced: "This Poll Number Will Send Democrats Into a Panic." A week later though, Cillizza was silent when CNN's own poll found Biden's approval climbing to 52 percent.
CNN seemed to struggle with how to cover its good-news-for-Biden poll when the Beltway's preferred narrative was his "summer from hell." This was CNN's online headline for a story that showed Biden with a strong approval rating: "Americans Turn Pessimistic Amid Concerns Over Economy and Coronavirus." Later in a news segment, when a CNN anchor suggested the network's latest showing had Biden's rating at 43 percent, she had to be corrected by a guest who pointed out CNN's survey showed a 52 percent mark.
Biden's summertime slide has been fueled by Afghanistan and Covid, two unique and pressing challenges. But it also represents a natural progression for first term presidents as the so-called "honeymoon" with voters slowly wears off. Between being sworn in January 2009, and September 1 of that year, President Barack Obama, a successful two-term president, lost seven points on his approval rating, which is exactly how many points Biden has dipped since his inauguration.
Note that as with Biden, the press often obsessed over minor downward movements in Obama's approval in order to concoct a narrative about a president "sinking" and "plunging." At one point, a New York Times editorial was so anxious to push a narrative about Obama's supposedly broken presidency, it fabricated his approval rating, claiming it was 40 percent in a new poll, when it was actually 50 percent in that new survey.
The contrast with how the press has treated the popularity of the last two Democratic presidents with how they treated Trump's unpopularity couldn't be more startling.
When Biden's approval rating first fell below 50 percent this summer, it was considered newsworthy, as pundits weigh in on the approval "slide" and wondered if the Afghanistan story was going to doom his presidency. Rarely included in that heavy-handed analysis was the fact that at the same point in his presidency, Trump was sitting at a woeful 37 percent approval rating.
While Trump wallowed in abysmal ratings for most of his presidency (he never cracked 50 percent), the press mostly looked away, treating his poor standing as being usual. It was normalized.
Here's a quick example. In October, 2018 Politico published a piece about Trump's fire hose, "new media strategy," where he appeared on TV without pause and constantly answered reporters' shouted questions at the White House. In the eyes of Politico, it was a novel and winning strategy — it "worked" for Trump. And Politico even singled out Trump's top aide who was responsible for the approach.
Of course, what Politico never mentioned, and what the D.C. press didn't really think mattered in October 2018, was that Trump's approval stood at a lowly 41 percent.
Can you imagine today if Biden's approval fell five more points, to 41 percent, and the Beltway press started writing stories about how smart his communications strategy was? It's inconceivable because Democrats are held to a tougher media standard.