President Joe Biden’s approval rating fell last year after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and he has not been able to improve it very much since then. Even as the unemployment rate has declined and COVID-19 shows signs of receding from many Americans’ concern, Biden still faces soaring inflation and uncertainty about where the economy is headed.
The latest Economist/YouGov Poll suggests that Biden might not be getting much credit for improving economic indicators. The survey included an experiment to show how Americans evaluate the state of the economy when it is linked (or not linked) to Biden’s name. In the experiment, a randomly selected half of the respondents were asked a pair of questions about what has happened to the unemployment rate and the inflation rate “since January 2021.”. The other half of respondents were asked similar questions, with one key difference: the time reference of “since January 2021” was replaced with, “since Joe Biden became President.”
Biden took office in January 2021, and since then, unemployment has fallen while inflation has risen. But what do Americans say has happened, and how does it depend on how they’re asked?
Slightly more Americans overall say the unemployment rate has gone down “since January 2021” (44%) than say it has dropped “since Joe Biden became President” (39%). Democrats are similarly likely to say the unemployment rate has gone down “since January 2021” (53%) and “since Joe Biden became President” (51%). Republicans are less likely to say the unemployment rate has gone down when asked about it in the context of when Joe Biden became president, compared to being asked about January 2021. With no mention of Biden, 41% of Republicans say the jobless rate has gone down since January 2021, but only 28% say the same when asked what’s happened since Joe Biden became president.
The difference likely understates the effect that thinking of Biden has on people’s perception of unemployment, since presumably some of the group asked the questions without his name would still know he took office in January 2021. And the overall numbers show his difficulty getting credit for a positive trend in unemployment: Fewer than half — including only about half of Democrats — say it’s declined for both forms of the question, even though it has, significantly (more people do say it’s fallen than risen, with the rest saying it has stayed the same). When Biden assumed office, the jobless rate was 6.4%. When last reported, in April, it was down to 3.6%, the lowest level since before the pandemic.
Many Americans are feeling the pain of inflation. A majority of Americans say it is a more important problem than unemployment, and three in five (60%) call it a very important issue. It’s a problem that Americans do not expect will disappear any time soon: Nearly half expect inflation to be even higher six months from now. The difference in the question-wording experiment for inflation makes very little difference both overall and among members of each political party: No matter how they’re asked, the vast majority of Americans correctly say inflation has gone up since Biden became president.
Americans are as likely to say the inflation rate has increased “since January 2021” (78%) as say it has increased “since Joe Biden became President” (78%). Democrats are equally likely to say it has increased when asked both versions of the question (72% for each say it’s gone up). Republicans are similarly likely to say inflation has increased “since January 2021” (87%) as “since Joe Biden became President” (86%).
Overall, more Americans give a lot of responsibility for trends in inflation (46%) to President Biden than for trends in unemployment (36%). Republicans are even more likely to assign responsibility to Biden: 58% give him a lot of responsibility for unemployment trends, and 81% a lot of responsibility for inflation trends. That more Republicans assign Biden a lot of responsibility for unemployment trends would help him more if Republicans weren’t roughly split on whether unemployment has risen or fallen during his presidency.
This poll was conducted on April 30 - May 3, 2022, among 1,500 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this Economist/YouGov poll