Joe Biden is not particularly popular at the moment. His approval rating sits just above 42 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s poll tracker, lower than any modern president at this stage of his first term other than Donald Trump. Many of the theories as to why highlight a general sense of malaise, a national gloom produced by the lingering pandemic, conflict among congressional Democrats, poor White House communication, the rocky withdrawal from Afghanistan, and most of all: inflation.
But what if it’s actually simpler? What if the main problem isn’t really inflation per se, but just that gas prices have gone up a lot?
That’s the sort of optimistic possibility raised in a recent analysis by the think tank and polling outfit Data for Progress. It turns out that the share of Americans who disapprove of Biden is correlated very, very strongly with the rising cost of fuel. Here’s what the relationship looks like if you include the weeks of the Afghanistan withdrawal, where Biden essentially took a permanent hit to his standing among a certain set of voters.
And here’s what it looks like if you take out the Afghanistan weeks. It’s nearly a 1-to-1 relationship.
As always, correlation does not equal causation. But wow, that is a hell of a correlation! Data for Progress co-founder Colin McAuliffe told me that you can separate Biden’s term, and his approval rating, into three stages: an early honeymoon period, the massive shock of the Afghanistan exit, and the current period where gas prices seem to be the controlling factor. He told me that it’s possible grocery prices may be having a similar impact, though he hasn’t tested the relationship. (For some context: Gasoline has been responsible for 1.4 percent of the 6.2 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index over the past 12 months; food contributed another 0.75 percent—the categories are a big part of the overall inflation picture, but certainly not all of it.)
Admittedly, the gas price theory of Biden’s approval rating does feel a little reductive. I mean, it’s basically this old Obama-era cartoon come to life. But you also have to admit there’s a certain plausibility to it. Americans, after all, notoriously get pissed off about rising fuel costs, and right now they’re not just a source of stress in the family budget, but also a regular, real-world reminder reinforcing all those news stories people are hearing about raging inflation.
If gas prices are the main issue, then it’s also a subtly optimistic story for Biden. After all, the broad-based inflation the U.S. has been facing is a complicated problem, and nobody can say for sure when it will let up. But gas prices are pretty simple: They mostly reflect the cost of oil, which has finally begun to fall this month after surging more than 50 percent over the year.
Prices are dipping as investors react to a number of signs that more supply is about to come on line, such as a US Energy Information Administration forecast predicting a bump in shale production. The COVID surge in Europe has also pushed prices down, by dampening economic activity on the continent. But contra the conventional wisdom that presidents can’t really do anything to control gas prices, Biden’s diplomacy may be helping as well, at least at the margins. China says it’s now ready to start releasing oil from its strategic reserves, after Biden discussed the idea with the country’s leader, Xi Jiping, on Monday. The U.S. is considering tapping its own reserves as well, and has asked Japan, another big oil consumer, to do the same. These are short-term fixes, but they could take some pressure off the market until drilling in Texas revs up a bit.
It’s entirely conceivable that by next year, oil prices will be back down a bit, or will have at least leveled off. If Data for Progress’s hypothesis that Americans are mostly angry about the cost of filling up their pickups is right, Biden could potentially see a bit of an image rebound, even if inflationary forces that freak out economists are still kicking. That’s the tank-half-full way of looking at things for the Democrats, anyway.