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Everything is coming up Biden

The president’s had a string of recent wins. So why do his numbers suck?

Joe Biden wearing sunglasses with a blue sky backdrop
President Biden in San Diego on March 13, 2023.
Leon Neal/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

After President Joe Biden delivered the commencement speech at the Air Force Academy’s graduation on Thursday, he tripped over a sandbag and fell flat on his face. But that’s just about the only tumble Biden has taken recently, either literal or metaphorical: The president is coming off a remarkably successful month, in both political and substantive policy terms.

Consider the following examples.

The May jobs report, released on Friday morning, found that the US economy produced 339,000 jobs, a blistering pace of growth that suggests fears of a recession are at present overblown. “Job growth at this rate, this far into a recovery, with unemployment this low, is pretty close to unprecedented,” tweeted University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers.

On Thursday night, the Senate passed the bipartisan debt ceiling deal, ending a standoff that threatened to cause a global disaster, on relatively favorable terms for the president. “Biden averted an economic crisis without making extraordinary policy changes, and took the debt ceiling issue off the table until after the 2024 election,” per my colleague Andrew Prokop’s apt summary.

Earlier in the month, data showed that inflation had slowed to a nearly two-year low. The expiration of Title 42, a Covid-era immigration restriction whose end was supposed to cause a massive surge in migrants claiming asylum, had no such effect; in fact, border apprehensions declined precipitously after it ended.

Also in May, special counsel John Durham’s report into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe found nothing damaging for Biden. A House Republican report into the finances of Biden and his son Hunter cleared the president of wrongdoing. And a jury found Biden’s most likely 2024 opponent, former President Donald Trump, liable for sexually assaulting the writer E. Jean Carroll.

None of this means Biden is cruising to reelection. His approval ratings are still quite poor, and he’s trailing Trump in the RealClearPolitics head-to-head polling average.

But the past month has shown that, on a series of critically important issues, things have started breaking the president’s way. The question now is just how much these developments will prove to matter.

Joe Biden don’t get no respect

There’s an interesting pattern throughout Biden’s presidency: He suffers for policy failures but doesn’t gain commensurably for similar successes.

Biden’s approval ratings were more favorable than not until August 2021, when the rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan resulted in the Taliban’s conquest of the country and a humanitarian nightmare. The mess caused his numbers to dip into net-negative territory, and they’ve never turned positive again since.

Yet consider the other big foreign policy issue of Biden’s first term: Ukraine. By most accounts, the Biden team has handled the war quite skillfully: US military aid has played a crucial role in blocking the Kremlin’s advances without triggering any kind of dangerous direct escalation between American and Russian forces. Still, there’s been no Ukraine boon in Biden’s poll numbers commensurate with the Afghanistan bust.

Similarly, inflation clearly hurt the president’s standing: In October 2022, fewer Americans said their personal financial situation was good than did at the peak of the Covid-induced recession in 2020. The recent inflation decline and surging job growth have not led to a sentiment bounce-back: A May poll found that a mere third of Americans approved of Biden’s handling of the economy.

There are many potential explanations for this asymmetry.

The Afghanistan withdrawal generated heartbreaking scenes of real human suffering and marked defeat in a war the United States has waged for two decades; it also generated a tremendous amount of negative press coverage for Biden in mainstream outlets. The Ukraine conflict, while geopolitically more significant, has less immediate and tangible stakes for many Americans.

In a recent column, the New York Times’s Paul Krugman credits the gap between public perceptions and economic reality to a series of factors: political partisanship causing Republicans to always assess Biden negatively, a media bias toward covering bad economic news, and overly pessimistic projections from economists.

Whatever the reason, the historic pattern is clear: Biden suffers from bad news but doesn’t recover equally when it turns good. The question now is whether this pattern will continue to hold when it comes to the only poll that ultimately matters: the 2024 election.

There are some reasons for the president to remain optimistic. Unlike favorability polls, elections require a binary choice between Biden and someone else. In this case, that’s almost certainly going to be Trump or his (currently far-behind) rival Ron DeSantis. Both of these men have significant baggage, to put it mildly. As the campaign heats up and matters like Trump’s obsession with overturning the 2020 election and DeSantis’s passage of a six-week abortion ban in Florida get more attention, it’s likely that Biden will start to be seen more favorably by comparison.

What’s more, the past month’s developments do significant damage to GOP arguments on issues that might help their candidate win over persuadable moderate voters.

Political science research suggests that objective economic conditions do matter in presidential elections. Immigration, perhaps Trump’s favorite theme, is not rising to the top of the agenda after Title 42. Attacking Biden as a crook through guilt by association with Hunter will be a lot harder after a Republican investigation cleared the president, requiring a deeper and deeper dive into right-wing conspiracy territory unintelligible to the median voter. Nor is it obvious that focusing on legal concerns would be good for Trump after the Carroll verdict and his own looming indictment(s).

So while a successful May probably won’t turn Biden’s favorability ratings around immediately, his political team should appreciate it nonetheless.

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