One year in, Joe Biden’s Presidency seems to have reached an inflection point.
His primary legislative program is on the ropes and COVID refuses to fade away. Accordingly, a promising first six months devolved into a tough back half of 2021. Now, FiveThirtyEight has Biden’s average approval rating at just 41.8%.
Just how bad a number is that? Well, luckily, FiveThirtyEight keeps track of every President’s approval rating since Truman. So we can check each President’s rating at the one-year mark and how it compares to Biden’s. Additionally, I dug into some archives to examine what kind of first year each Chief Executive dealt with, and specifically how they were viewed on their 365th day in office. I also occasionally used Gallup’s historical records to chart approval trends in a more detailed manner.
Since three Administrations began in unorthodox fashion (after two Presidential deaths and a resignation) those particular entries are noted in italics. With that, let’s dive in!
Harry S. Truman: 50.0%
Our first comparison is one of those unique ones. Truman took office after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the waning days of the European theater during World War II. As a result, his first approval ratings were in the stratosphere, practically unequaled until 9/11. After the war ended in August, however, those numbers began to decline as America experienced a turbulent transition to a post-war economy.
By April 1946, Truman was in the midst of a colossal collapse. His original average of 87% had fallen to 50%, and was still on its way down to 33% by that fall. Unsurprisingly, Truman spent his first anniversary trying to recover some of FDR’s shine by visiting Hyde Park and pledging to continue the New Deal.
Dwight Eisenhower: 71.3%
Conversely, Dwight Eisenhower was still enjoying strong numbers as he began his 365th day as President. 1953 was a grand year for Ike, as the death of Stalin and the end of the Korean War validated his brand of leadership. Eisenhower’s approval was even on an upswing in the first few weeks of 1954, perhaps thanks to his Atoms for Peace speech the previous December.
It’s tempting to buy into the stereotype of the boring 1950s, especially when you find that Ike’s gift of a silver cup from the Cabinet was considered front page news back then. Yet despite those happy headlines, plenty of developments were boiling beneath the surface in January 1954. Joe McCarthy was still holding his notorious hearings and isolationists in the Senate were seeking to curb the Chief Executive’s treaty-making power. These disturbances never bothered Eisenhower, though, as his approval rating never fell below 50% through his whole first term.
John F. Kennedy: 79.0%
JFK’s first year approval rating was possibly the most consistently strong in recorded history. Kennedy’s numbers stayed more or less in the 70s except for a jump in late April after the Bay of Pigs. Rather than hurting him, that botched Cuban invasion actually provoked a ‘rally around the flag’ effect that gave Kennedy his highest ratings ever.
Like his fellow Catholic President, Kennedy’s Administration was worried about inflation and Congressional gridlock at his one-year mark. Southern Dixiecrats were killing JFK’s legislative priorities (like a Department of Housing) through complicated Congressional procedures. At least Biden can take comfort that one of his heroes could relate to his current problems.
Lyndon B. Johnson: 74.0%
LBJ’s Administration was born from tragedy, and accordingly received high marks throughout its first year. In fact, Johnson is the only real challenger to JFK’s claim for the strongest first 365 days, as the Texan’s approval rating stayed in the 70s throughout virtually all of 1964.
During that year, LBJ won such towering achievements as the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act, which kickstarted his cherished War on Poverty. That November, he scored one of the largest landslides in American history, securing a still-record 61.1% of the popular vote. Nevertheless, shadows always hung over Johnson’s reign and he had to spend his first anniversary commemorating Kennedy’s assassination.
Richard Nixon: 60.2%
Given that 1968 was one of America’s most turbulent years, it’s not surprising that Richard Nixon entered office on a smaller honeymoon high than his predecessors. Nixon began with a relatively mild 59% rating that slowly creeped up during 1969, only to fall down to 56% in the fall. Overseas, Nixon was dealing with a deteriorating situation in Vietnam, as domestically his Supreme Court nomination was floundering.
By January 20, 1970, however, Nixon was still enjoying a bump in support from his ‘Great Silent Majority’ Oval Office address the previous November. Yet that court vacancy continued to give him trouble, as his replacement option was even more controversial than his original choice. Eventually, that nominee would also fail and Nixon ended up dropping down to the mid 50s that spring.
Gerald Ford: 43.5%
The third and final unconventional beginning belongs to Gerald Ford, who took over after Nixon’s resignation. Despite a promising start, Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon sent his numbers into a tailspin. By early 1975, FiveThirtyEight shows his average was an abysmal 34.8%.
In the summer of 1975, Ford’s ratings spiked after Marines successfully rescued the American crew of the U.S.S. Mayaguez from Cambodian hijackers. That high faded just in time for his one-year anniversary, and coverage of the milestone mostly focused on how the nation was still unsure of what exactly to make of their accidental President.
Jimmy Carter: 55.0%
The peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia initially earned strong ratings early in his tenure, hitting the mid 70s a few months into office. Carter’s numbers gradually eroded throughout 1977, however, and took a major hit when his OMB Director Bert Lance became engulfed in scandal.
A year into office, Carter’s numbers were still above water, yet also in the middle of a steady decline. On January 19th, he gave his State of the Union and identified energy reform, economic growth and the Panama Canal Treaty as his main priorities. Although he would achieve at least partial success on each one, they would cost him what little political capital he had left.
Ronald Reagan: 48.9%
You wouldn’t know it just from looking at Ronald Reagan’s two landslide victories, but the Gipper suffered long periods of unpopularity, particularly in his first term. After the ‘halo effect’ from the failed assassination attempt against him faded, the poor economy consistently corroded his numbers.
A New York Times/CBS poll in January 1982 found Americans unhappy with the economy and Reagan’s first year as a whole. Surprisingly, though, a majority felt that while Reagan’s policies were hurting them, they were also hopeful that those same policies would work in the long-term. So while Reagan’s numbers tumbled to 35% in January 1983, when the post-recession economic growth finally kicked in, he rose to 61% on the eve of his re-election.
George H.W. Bush: 78.3%
Whereas Reagan’s approval always seemed to lag his electoral performances, his Vice President tended to overperform his electoral results. Bush 41’s ratings consistently grew throughout his first year, with a sharp jump evident after he took a hardline against Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in May 1989.
By the time Bush decided to invade Panama to depose Noriega in December 1989, his approval rating was flirting with 80%. The concurrent fall of the Berlin Wall probably also helped Bush’s image as a foreign policy expert. Altogether, Bush’s numbers rivaled JFK’s until the fall of 1991, when economic troubles caused a precipitous drop that eventually led to his defeat.
Bill Clinton: 56.5%
Much like Reagan, Clinton’s approval ratings were particularly tumultuous, especially considering his electoral success. A series of mis-steps, capped off by the Waco fiasco, sent Clinton down into the 30s during his first summer. As he began to piece together legislative wins, including his budget plan, his numbers rose into the 50s again.
In the long-view, Bill Clinton’s one-year mark was a relatively quiet and prosperous time for him. Thanks to the Whitewater investigations and the failure of health care reform, he wouldn’t reach the highs of January 1994 again until the summer of 1996.
George W. Bush: 81.2%
Here’s a spoiler for you, of the 14 Presidents included in this piece, Bush 43 enjoyed the highest approval rating on his 365th day. Nor is it difficult to figure out why. The 9/11 attacks caused a massive jump in Bush’s numbers, reaching an all-time high 88.1% in the FiveThirtyEight average. Moreover, this wasn’t a temporary spike, Bush’s average stayed in the 80s until the following February.
The focus on foreign affairs also helped Bush dodge any hit from the collapse of Enron, which was in full swing by January 2002. Under normal circumstances, his connections to some of the company’s leaders likely would’ve hurt him. Instead, Bush’s numbers didn’t fall underwater until January 2004.
Barack Obama: 49.8%
Joe Biden must have deja vu all over again. As I’ve noted before, there’s a tremendous similarity between Barack Obama’s 2009 and Biden’s 2021. They both had a honeymoon period that collapsed during the summer, and were tormented by the Great Recession and the COVID pandemic respectively. Those troubles were also compounded by their major legislative initiative, be it health care reform or Build Back Better, being mired in gridlock.
Furthermore, just as Biden’s voting rights bill appears dead, the ACA seemed to be sunk after Democrats lost the Massachusetts Senate special election on January 19th. President Obama eventually won that policy fight, but didn’t consistently get above 50% again until the fall of 2012. Biden may ultimately experience a similar phenomenon.
Donald Trump: 39.5%
The prize for worst approval rating on Day 365 of their term, though, still belongs to Donald Trump. Trump was the only President to have no real honeymoon, starting off in the 40s and falling down to the 30s thanks to the Russia investigation and the failure to repeal Obamacare. In fact, his numbers in January 2022 were actually on a bit of an upswing, as some Republicans returned to the fold after the passage of the tax cut bill.
Nevertheless, the one-year mark was still a typically chaotic time in the Trump Administration. Trump’s bombastic rhetoric on North Korea, his affair with Stormy Daniels, and his relationship with Steve Bannon all dominated the headlines. While Trump’s numbers eventually settled in the low 40s, they stayed there (with few exceptions) for the rest of his Presidency.
As you can see, success at the one-year mark is not a guaranteed indicator of future success. Among those with an approval rating of 60% or better on Day 365, Eisenhower, Nixon and Bush 43 won a second term while Johnson and Bush 41 did not (Kennedy never got the chance). Conversely, of those below 60%: Truman, Reagan, Clinton and Obama got a second term while Ford, Carter and Trump did not.
Additionally, there are two other observations worth noting. First, as partisan polarization has increased in the early 21st century, Presidential approval ratings have largely stabilized. In the second half of the 20th century, it was much more common for people not usually inclined towards the President to occasionally throw their support behind him. Such a phenomenon is largely nonexistent now.
Secondly, since Trump is looming as Biden’s most likely 2024 opponent, it’s important to point out that Biden’s numbers have yet to ever dip below the trend set by Trump. So even if Biden’s numbers continue to sit second from the bottom, he’ll still have the advantage of facing the only man who’s proven to be even more unpopular.
I look forward to revisiting this topic, and seeing how the historical trends may shift, when Biden’s second anniversary comes up.