WASHINGTON — The honeymoon is over. And the fading Republican support was inevitable. But Democrats are alarmed by President Joe Biden's decline in job approval among groups central to his base — most notably Black voters, Hispanics and women.
Despite the slip in his job approval, Biden's economic agenda remains popular in the same polls, which find that voters support his plans to overhaul U.S. infrastructure, expand Medicare, fund universal pre-K and put money into clean energy.
But the bills have been caught up in a complex legislative logjam for months. Since late June, Biden's approval rating has fallen from 52.7 percent to 44.5 percent in the FiveThirtyEight average, with disapproval outstripping approval since the end of August.
Democratic pollsters say Biden needs Congress to pass his agenda for his approval to recover.
"Voters are looking for a return on what they were promised," said Jeff Horwitt, a Democratic pollster who co-conducts the NBC News poll.
Horwitt said the sausage-making process is uninspiring to voters, who just want to know whether they're going to be able to afford child care and make ends meet.
"It's messy. And it's part of the process of making laws. But having meetings and disagreements — that's not making people feel great about the president and the job he's doing," Horwitt said. "The things promised in the campaign — not a lot of them have turned into law yet. The good news for Democrats is that there's time. But you need to have some wins."
Negative and positive loops
The shifts among Biden's base have been stark.
A Pew Research Center poll found that from July to September, Biden's approval rating fell by 18 points among Black voters, 16 points among Hispanics and 12 points among women. He won all three groups by lopsided margins last year. Among voters who identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, his approval fell by 13 points, to 75 percent.
Among independents, another key group that powered him into the White House, Biden's approval fell from 54 percent to 42 percent over the summer.
But the same poll found 2-to-1 national support for the two pillars of Biden's agenda: the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and the $3.5 trillion package of economic and social programs.
Bill McInturff, the Republican pollster to co-conducts the NBC News poll, said Biden is stuck in a "negative loop" of setbacks and bad stories about them, from the Afghanistan withdrawal to missed deadlines on Capitol Hill to Democratic infighting over his domestic agenda.
"We are starting to see softening among core Democratic constituencies," he said. "The core Democrats that helped elect him were not only looking for an alternative to [Donald] Trump. They were looking for very significant policy change."
McInturff said passing the two bills would brighten the outlook for Biden, particularly with his base.
"Then we get into a positive loop: Democrats were able to solve their infighting. Democrats got something done, a major accomplishment. There's so much money in these bills, and there's so many things core Democratic constituencies want," he said.
But McInturff said the elasticity is limited in this polarized era, with higher intensity of presidential support and opposition between the parties.
Cornell Belcher, a pollster who worked for former President Barack Obama, said Biden has been through "a tumultuous period," and he questioned whether passing his economic proposals would be enough to win back lost Democratic support.
"There are issues with key components of his coalition," he said.
'The ghost of 2010'
Belcher said many voters were energized more by issues around voting rights and justice in policing, which have faded in Washington because of Democrats' inability to overcome or pierce the 60-vote filibuster in the Senate, where they have 50 votes, to advance those priorities.
"Democrats are trying to put points up on a board passing legislation like Build Back Better and infrastructure, which are solid and popular pieces of legislation," Belcher said. "But those kids and those young people, those progressives who gave Democrats a majority and gave Joe Biden a majority in this country — they were not marching for potholes."
In the 2020 election, Biden won 92 percent of Black voters. His approval among Black voters is just 67 percent in a recent Pew Research poll, 66 percent in a YouGov poll and 66 percent in a Quinnipiac University poll.
Belcher said he hears "the ghost of 2010," referring to the first Obama midterm election, when Democrats were unenthusiastic and the party suffered a beating.
"In a nutshell, if Democrats are not giving their base something to be energized so we can mobilize and energize them around, we're going to have 2010 and 2014 again," he said.
Horwitt took a more optimistic view, arguing that Biden is facing "a low point" in the polls and will bounce back as long as he gets his economic agenda passed.
That raises the stakes as Democrats eye difficult decisions to resolve a host of differences between competing factions within the party over price tag, scope and policy.
"If these bills fail, that's a huge problem," he said. "If you can't pass these bills and demonstrate that you can deliver, then the rationale for voting Democrat is really called into question."