It may not have increased by much, and it’s rising from an all-time low, but for the first time during his presidency, Joe Biden’s approval rating on Main Street has gone up.
After washing out at an approval rating among small business owners of 31% during the third quarter of 2022, when inflation hit its peak, Biden’s approval rating increased to 34% in the fourth-quarter poll conducted by CNBC and SurveyMonkey. It’s the first time across the eight quarters of his presidency there has been any rise in the quarterly poll.
That’s a sign of Biden’s political strength after the midterm elections, but those elections may not be the only, or even best, explanation for the reversal in this trend.
Across multiple national polls of the public, Biden’s approval has been gaining since August, when gas prices began to decline and the president accomplished key legislative achievements that had stalled earlier in his term, including the Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS Act to spur domestic manufacturing. Gas prices hit their lowest level in over a year this week.
The CNBC|SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey for Q4 2022 was conducted Nov. 9-Nov. 16 among nearly 2,600 small business owners. The last time CNBC polled small business owners was in late July, right before several national polls began to show a modest rise in Biden’s approval ratings, and in particular, small gains made by the president among Democrats.
In the CNBC|SurveyMonkey poll, Biden’s approval rating ticked up slightly among Democrats and independents — 83% of Democrats and 31% of independents approve of Biden this quarter, compared with 81% of Democrats and 29% of independents last quarter.
Biden’s approval rating remains heavily partisan: Just 8% of small business owners who are Republican approve of Biden.
Among the general public — the CNBC|SurveyMonkey poll includes a parallel sample of more than 11,000 Americans who do not own businesses — 45% approve of Biden. That’s up slightly from last quarter (41%) but still down sharply from the all-time high approval rating set in the first quarter of his presidency (59%).
Regardless of the contributing factors and timing of the Biden bump, the improvement is notable.
“This is the first quarter of Biden’s presidency where we’ve seen any improvement whatsoever in Biden’s approval among small business owners, so it’s important because it breaks the trend,” said Laura Wronski, senior manager of research science at Momentive.
“We don’t know yet, but it could be the start of a reversal in his favor on Main Street and in the country overall, and it also coincides with a similar uptick in approval in the poll aggregations overall from the late summer until now,” she said. “While there hasn’t been a tectonic economic shift since Q3, there have been incremental improvements and those are adding up in the Biden administration’s favor.”
Small business owners are more confident this quarter than last, with the overall survey reading moving up modestly and fears of recession declining quarter over quarter. It’s not that Main Street does not see a recession coming, but business owners are now less likely than a quarter ago to say the economy is already experiencing one, and the majority taking the survey indicated that their business is prepared to survive an economic downturn.
“Whether gas prices or inflation or legislative achievements, I certainly think there is plenty of evidence from late summer to early fall of a little improvement but not a continuing rise,” said Charles Franklin, who is a political scientist and director of the Marquette University Law School polling. “It pulled him out of the worst of his doldrums.”
Biden remains underwater with the public and with small business owners across all of the polls. The first Gallup poll conducted since the midterms and released earlier this week showed no further gain in Biden’s approval, steady at 40%.
Marquette’s polling after the midterms did show a slight rise (5%) in the percentage of Democrats saying they would like to see Biden run for reelection. But the president is still underwater on that, at 49%, even with its data and the CNBC poll showing Biden’s standing is up among Democrats.
Economic risks to Biden’s approval remain
With his approval ratings improved but off a low baseline, the tenuous standing of the economy could threaten the gains Biden has been able to make.
Gallup senior editor Jeff Jones said Biden will need more tangible progress on the economy, including signs of inflation easing more, for his approval ratings to not level off. In Gallup polling this reading has been stable at 40% since September.
“We would have to see something more dramatic to see it come up more,” Jones said. Gallup data also shows that indicators of financial hardship among Americans are flat since August, he said, even though gas prices are down roughly $1 from their peak.
The strong employment picture has helped to mitigate the impact of inflation, but if layoffs pick up, that too could dent the gains made by Biden. “That would be a recipe for falling presidential approval,” Franklin said. The Federal Reserve needs unemployment to rise as part of its monetary policy’s intended impact on inflation.
“You need falling jobs to control inflation … damned if you do, and damned if you don’t,” Franklin said. “I’m not an economist, but I do think the economic future is very tenuous.”
Small business owners taking the CNBC survey continue to rate inflation as the No. 1 risk to their business and remain unconvinced it will fall significantly even though it has been trending down in recent months outside labor market indicators. On Friday, wholesale inflation data came in hotter than expected.
But for now, at least, Biden’s standing is up. “The basic story line on where the bottom was, and the relative stability after the midterms, holds up,” Franklin said.