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What Biden's low approval ratings and high-profile wins could mean for the midterms

Updated August 5, 2022 at 11:22 AM ET

It's been a busy few weeks for President Biden. Despite a rebounding case of COVID, he has been able to tout the killing of al-Qaida's top leader, falling gas prices, the passage of a major domestic manufacturing bill and Congress being on the cusp of finally passing a landmark health care, tax and climate package.

Those victories are coming at a crucial moment, with the November midterm elections fast approaching and Biden's approval rates at an all-time low.

An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released in mid-July put Biden's approval rate at 36%. And it attributed that record low to a drop in support from Biden's own party, with a relatively low 75% of Democrats saying they approve of the job he is doing (for comparison, former President Donald Trump's approval within his party was never that low).

Could this recent string of wins change how Democrats feel about the president, and what they consider their options ahead of the midterms?

NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid posed those questions on Morning Edition to two Democratic strategists: Ben LaBolt, who worked on communications for Biden and former President Barack Obama, and Chris Huntley, a former speechwriter for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

While midterms are typically historically difficult for whichever party controls the White House, LaBolt says that these tangible results and momentum in Congress are showing people that their votes mattered, and could help shift perceptions of the president and congressional Democrats.

Huntley agrees that this is a "real vivid, galvanizing moment" for many people. And he believes that others will be motivated to cast their votes not by the Democrats' success but by the threat of Republican control of Congress.

"Even though there are a lot of people who want to see the president and the administration go further on climate, go further on student debt, go further on voting rights, go further on justice. ... I think folks understand the urgency of this moment and that if we lose these key, key state races, it's a slippery slope," Huntley says.

What could Biden do to galvanize voters ahead of the midterms?

"A lot of folks, the progressive folks, are saying, 'Look, we need to do more to address the human infrastructure needs of our nation,' " Huntley says. "We have to invest in America's most valuable resource, its people."

That could include more investments in child nutrition, tuition-free community college, paid family and medical leave and other initiatives that Biden promised and championed at the start of his administration.

"The political reality just didn't match it," Huntley adds.

For example, many young voters are frustrated that Biden has not made good on his campaign pledge to forgive at least a portion of student loan debt — something that Huntley points out disproportionately impacts people of color and has "crushed an entire generation."

LaBolt says he understands why some Democrats are feeling frustrated or apathetic, having delivered votes in record numbers only to see campaign pledges go unfulfilled. But he encourages them to celebrate other wins, like Congress confirming a record number of judges and advancing major climate and health care legislation.

"A lot of these were listed as priorities during the Democratic primary, when a certain subset of America was debating what the most important issues were to them," LaBolt says of those campaign promises. "Well, the American people today, the broad electorate, are telling us that the cost of living matters most to them. And that's exactly where the president and Congress are focused today."

Is it too early to be thinking about 2024?

Given these accomplishments, Khalid asks, why is it that so many Americans don't want Biden to run for president again? A CNN poll released last week, for example, found that 75% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters want the party to nominate someone else.

Huntley acknowledges that the political process moves slower than many people would like, but encourages them to focus on the issues at stake, like freedoms that are at risk.

LaBolt agrees, adding the focus should be on the midterms of 2022, not on the presidential election of 2024.

"People love to focus on presidential elections because it's the highest-profile form of politics that we practice," he says. "But there are plenty of presidents from President Obama to President Clinton that got through tough midterm elections. And then when the American people were presented with the alternative, which was Republican control of Congress, they realized that's not something that they wanted and that Republicans weren't focused on their priorities."

How can Biden take bold action without being divisive?

LaBolt says it's more so a question of where Biden channels his political energy to get the most effective outcomes, given the constraints (for example, that two Democratic senators don't support changing the filibuster).

Despite those challenges, LaBolt says Biden has been taking action where he can, like addressing voting rights through the Justice Department and moving toward taking climate action through the Environmental Protection Agency.

"This is a president who has worked in government nearly his entire career," LaBolt says. "He understands that Congress has some levers to pull. The executive has some levers to pull. The levers that the executive pulls are constrained by what the courts will do with those executive actions. And so I think they've studied very closely what executive actions they can take, where they can be effective in a way that it won't be tossed out by the courts, but continue to show momentum on these important priorities."

At the end of the day, given Biden's platform and track record, Huntley says there are "only so many different ways in which he's going to approach embracing progressive policy." That makes it even more important for voters to speak up, he adds.

"It's on us, I believe, to make sure that we hold our leaders accountable ... so that when we do make a stand for student debt cancellation, when we do call for advances in health care, when we do call for more robust investments in climate change, there's a cloud of witnesses that join us and it's not seen as a minority idea," Huntley says. "It's seen as what the will of the people is."

This interview was conducted by Asma Khalid, produced by Nina Kravinsky and David West and edited by John Helton and Kaity Kline. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript:

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

How popular is President Biden today? Last month's NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll indicated that 75% of Democrats like the job he's doing. But his overall approval rating was just 36%. And among younger voters, 63% who are 45 or younger said they disapprove of Biden's performance. To help unpack what this means and what Democrats might see as options ahead of the midterms, we called on two Democratic strategists. Ben LaBolt has worked on communications for Biden and former President Barack Obama. And Chris Huntley is a former speechwriter for Senator Elizabeth Warren. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid takes it from here.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Some would say, fairly accurately, that the president does seem to be on a bit of a winning streak in the past couple of weeks, with the killing of al-Qaida's top leader. You have falling gas prices, the passage of a bill to expand semiconductor chip production here in the United States, and then on the cusp of getting a health care and climate bill passed in Congress. You know, could that change how Democrats themselves feel about the president?

BEN LABOLT: Look; I think it's because of voters' instant gratification tendency. That's why midterms are almost always historically very difficult for the party in control of the White House. And that's been no exception heading into this year. However, these are tangible results that the American people can say, their votes mattered.

CHRISTOPHER HUNTLEY: I think it's a real vivid, galvanizing moment for a lot of folks. And even though there are a lot of people who want to see the president and the administration go further on climate, go further on student debt, go further on voting rights, go further on justice - there's a lot that we could and should be doing. I think folks understand the urgency of this moment and that if we lose these key state races, it's a slippery slope.

KHALID: It sounds like you're saying that old adage that fear can be a great motivator, that maybe it isn't even necessarily about, if I'm understanding correctly, what Joe Biden is able to get through in the next couple of months, it's about what Republicans could do if they took over.

HUNTLEY: I always say, you have to speak to the heart that you're trying to move, right? So we need to talk to people in accessible language. We have to give people tangible results that aren't just a list of accomplishments.

KHALID: Is there something, in your view, in particular that you would really like to see done, that you actually do think could help galvanize voters in particular ahead of the midterms?

HUNTLEY: A lot of folks, progressive folks, are saying, look; we need to do more to address the human infrastructure needs of our nation. We have to invest in America's most valuable resource, its people. So when I say more, you know, I'm, you know, thinking about more for investments in child nutrition, tuition-free community college, paid family medical leave - all those different things that we saw a lot of energy around that were proposed and promised by the president and initially were being championed right at the beginning of the administration. And to - the political reality just didn't match it.

KHALID: Ben, do you get that frustration, though, that voters on the left will sometimes feel like, they did show up in record numbers? They did deliver votes. There's still this sort of just emotional frustration - right? - and apathy, then, about continuing to show up when they feel like they've done that in the past.

LABOLT: Look; I understand that frustration. I mean, a lot of these were listed as priorities during the Democratic primary when a certain subset of America was debating what the most important issues were to them. Well, the American people today, the broad electorate are telling us that the cost of living matters most to them. And that's exactly where the President and Congress are focused today.

KHALID: Why is it that we see so many Americans, including Democrats, who say they don't want the president to run again?

HUNTLEY: I think that the political process that we live in, it does move a bit slower than folks would like for it to. I think our focus right now should be on the right-wing extremists and all of the freedoms that they're coming from, our - you know, the ability and the freedom to live in safe and healthy communities and to be able to earn enough money to put food on the table and have time to eat it with your family, your loved ones, when you get home, to vote and get your vote counted. I think that is the fundamental conversation we should be having.

LABOLT: I agree with Christopher there. Look; I think the focus should be on 2022, not 2024. People love to focus on presidential elections because it's the highest profile form of politics that we practice. But there are plenty of presidents, from President Obama to President Clinton, that got through tough midterm elections. And then when the American people were presented with the alternative, which was Republican control of Congress, they realized that's not something that they wanted and that Republicans weren't focused on their priorities.

KHALID: The pause on student loan payments expires at the end of this month. And part of the frustration I often hear from younger voters is that President Biden has not fulfilled his own campaign pledge to forgive at least a portion of student loan debt.

HUNTLEY: Yes, indeed. And I think, look; the president and the administration, they've been very clear. This is something that they're working on. I, you know, am hopeful that that's something that will happen sooner or later and it's something that will go bold because, you know, student debt has crushed an entire generation. And it's not just about young folks - and it is. It disproportionately impacts young people, young people of color, Black folks in particular. It also is an issue that, you know, seniors and elder folks, they face. I've heard some stories about 90 and 80-year-old grandparents or student loan borrowers who are still paying off student debt to this day. This is the United States of America. We're the wealthiest country in the world. We should not be having a space where people go to advance theirselves (ph) and get an education, and then they're crushed under the weight of student debt for the rest of their lives.

KHALID: I wanted to get your guys' take on how the president can be bold without also potentially dividing the country, because it's not like everybody agrees on the solutions?

HUNTLEY: There's only so many different ways in which he's going to approach embracing progressive policy. That's just who he is and what he's - how he's legislated and what he ran on and was elected on. It's on us, I believe, to make sure that we hold our leaders accountable so that when we do make a stand for student debt cancellation, when we do call for advances in health care, when we do call for more robust investments in climate change, there's a cloud of witnesses that join us. And it's not seen as a minority idea. It's seen as what the will of the people is.

LABOLT: I think it's really a question of where the president channels his political energy to get to the most effective outcomes. And there are constraints, right? There are two Democratic senators in the Senate who don't support lifting the filibuster. But the president is taking action where he can. He was fully prepared to take action on climate if Congress didn't move on what is becoming the Inflation Reduction Act. And he's got a number of tools at his disposal through the EPA and elsewhere to do so. The Justice Department is taking action on voting rights. Unfortunately, there weren't 60 votes in the Senate to get something through until this time.

And so this is a president who has worked in government nearly his entire career. He understands that Congress has some levers to pull. The executive has some levers to pull. The levers that the executive pulls are constrained by what the courts will do with those executive actions. And so I think they've studied very closely what executive actions they can take, where they can be effective in a way that it won't be tossed out by the courts, but continue to show momentum on these important priorities.

KHALID: Democratic strategists Ben LaBolt and Christopher Huntley. Thank you both very much.

HUNTLEY: Thank you.

LABOLT: Thanks for the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.