How invested should Biden become in futzing with his dismal numbers? Let’s say he found a magical way to add another 10 points to his approval ratings. Would the Manchin-Sinema axis become more obedient and help pass his agenda? Surely not. Would it help his party in the mid-term elections? Likely not. Popular presidents lose in mid-terms all the time and Mueller says they’re not ever good gauges of reelectability. Would it make him a cinch to win again in 2024? President George H.W. Bush averaged an approval rating of almost 61 throughout his presidency but was beaten by Bill Clinton (and third-party accomplice Ross Perot) when he ran for reelection in 1992. Truman won in 1948 on some pretty rotten numbers, dipping below 40 percent that campaign year.
The single, undeniable advantage higher approval numbers bring to a president is relief from critical press stories about his unlikability. The less criticism you attract, the more that more people will like you. But being routinely disliked, as we’ve seen with Trump, doesn’t completely blunt a presidency. Trump remade the judiciary, upturned the tax code, helped defeat ISIS and created the Space Force (don’t laugh), among other initiatives.
If Biden wants to sugar his ratings, he ought to synchronize his promises with his accomplishments. In a normal world, Biden would be canonized by voters for delivering a $2 trillion spending bill. But because he originally proposed $3.5 trillion, he’ll be punished in the approval game for “failing” if only the $2 trillion measure passes. He’d be wise to consult the arc of the Clinton presidency. Clinton recorded worse numbers in his first year than Biden has, primarily because he failed to deliver on the promised fronts of taxes and health care. By switching to achievable promises, he rebuilt his approval ratings and like Barack Obama finished his presidency on a high note.