President Joe Biden was having a pretty good day Tuesday, signing a historic marriage equality act to protect same-sex and interracial unions, and reveling in economic numbers showing inflation easing more than expected and gas prices dropping speedily. Meanwhile, basketball star Brittney Griner was tossing a ball around in Texas, recovering after the Biden administration negotiated her release from a penal colony in Russia, where she spent nearly a year behind bars.
Oh, and his Energy Department announced some groundbreaking, government-funded new scientific research that just might save the planet from the devastating environmental impact of climate change.
“Today’s a good day. Today, America takes a vital step towards equality,” Biden said in a South Lawn ceremony attended by hundreds of people and including musical performances from Cyndi Lauper and others. “The road to this moment has been long. But those who believe in equality and justice never gave up,” Biden added.
“Marriage is a simple proposition – whom do you love, and will you be loyal to that person you love? It’s not more complicated than that,” Biden said. “Everyone should have the right to answer that question for themselves without the government interference.”
Biden might be happy, but voters aren’t joining his bandwagon just yet. The president’s approval ratings – while inching up – remain underwater, meaning more people disapprove than approve of him as president just as Biden is mulling a run for reelection.
A USA Today/Suffolk University survey released Tuesday showed that about half of voters disapprove of Biden, while 45.5% approve of him. That’s one of the most encouraging polls for Biden in a while: The average of polls on the site FiveThirtyEight has Biden about 10 percentage points underwater, with 42.2% of voters approving of the president, and 52.4% disapproving of him.
But that doesn’t seem to daunt the president, who overcame early setbacks in his presidential campaign and later won approval for major legislation that had appeared doomed in Congress, experts note.
“He’s a guy who just thrives on low expectations,” says David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk poll. “He does well when people think he’s down and out.”
Biden had a poor showing in the first three presidential nominating contests in 2020, failing to win Iowa, New Hampshire or Nevada, Paleologos notes. But after a solid win in South Carolina, Biden emerged strong, later securing the nomination and besting Trump in the general.
Biden enjoyed high approval ratings after defeating former President Donald Trump and winning some early legislative and policy victories, such as the COVID-19 relief American Rescue Plan.
But after the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, Biden’s numbers began to tank. By summer of this year, the president’s approval rating was nearly 20 percentage points below his approval rating, and Democrats were worried that an already challenging midterm election year would end up as a disaster for the party.
Since then, Biden has racked up some major legislative and electoral wins, signing into law the most significant climate change and gun safety bills in decades. Democrats actually expanded their numbers in the Senate after the fall elections and limited losses in the House, so the incoming GOP majority will have a harder time keeping its fractured caucus in line.
Biden has done better at messaging his accomplishments, says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. The signing of the Respect for Marriage Act, for example, was a full-on event, attended by bipartisan members of Congress, LGBTQ community members and including reference to then-controversial comments then-Vice President Biden made in a TV interview supporting same-sex marriage rights.
Biden was criticized for jumping the gun then but later came to look ahead of the curve.
“This is the time to start spiking the football,” Miringoff says.
Biden made his political points as well during the historic ceremony, noting the remarks Justice Clarence Thomas on the “extreme” Supreme Court had made in his concurring opinion undoing another right – that of abortion access.
“Sadly, we must acknowledge another reason we are here. Congress is acting because an extreme Supreme Court has stripped the rights for millions of Americans that existed for half a century,” Biden said, referring to the Dobbs decision reversing abortion rights and putting the right to same-sex marriage, interracial marriage and contraception in play.
He said the law he was signing wasn’t enough – that Congress needed to pass the Equality Act to ban discrimination against LGBTQ people.
“This shouldn’t be about conservative or liberal, red or blue,” Biden said. But “a promise that we’re all created equal. We’re all entitled to what Abraham Lincoln called an open field and a fair chance.”
After he signed the bill, Biden gave his pen to Vice President Kamala Harris, who performed some of the nation’s first same-sex marriages in San Francisco in 2004.