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How Biden’s lagging approval rating compares to other recent presidents ahead of a midterm election

Gallup data show President Biden’s approval rating is right in line with recent history.

President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden
REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger

I’m supposed to be a history nerd (and I am, especially the nerdy part). But I had made an erroneous assumption that President Joe Biden’s 42% approval rating heading into the midterms was unusually bad. 

In fact, it is extremely normal. (A link to the data illustrating that is below.)

Looking at the last eight elections that occurred in the middle of a president’s first term, focusing on the president’s approval rating in the September before the midterm, and relying on Gallup polling numbers, only two of the eight presidents had approval ratings above 50%. And both of those cases are easily explained by the fact that the presidents (George H.W. Bush in 1990 and George W. Bush in 2002) had just taken the U.S. into a war, which was popular at the time. 

They had approval ratings of 73% (the first Bush, the war in Kuwait) and 67% (the second Bush, the war in Iraq) at a comparable point approaching the middle of their first term. In the case of Bush I, his sky-high 1990 ratings did not prevent him from losing his 1992 reelection effort. Bush II was reelected, but it was a close race.

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Leaving those aside, the approval ratings of the other six presidents in September of their first term approaching the midterm elections were:

  • 1978, Jimmy Carter: 45%
  • 1982, Ronald Reagan: 42% (exactly the same as Biden’s current Gallup approval rating
  • 1994, Bill Clinton: 42% (exactly the same…)
  • 2010, Barack Obama: 45%
  • 2018, Donald Trump: 40%, the lowest on the list but basically barely different from the other peacetime presidents
  • 2022, Joe Biden: 42%

Maybe you knew this. I found it surprising and interesting, which is why I pass it along.

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As for how those 40-45% approval ratings affected the other presidents when they came up for reelection? Reagan, Clinton and Obama were reelected; Carter and Trump were defeated.

You can see the original Gallup piece containing these numbers here.