Black voters’ approval of Biden declines amid stalled agenda

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January found that 60% of Black votes approved of President Joe Biden's job performance, down about 20 points from a similar poll in May. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January found that 60% of Black votes approved of President Joe Biden's job performance, down about 20 points from a similar poll in May. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When President Joe Biden took office, he enjoyed sky-high popularity among Black voters who were key to his 2020 victory in Georgia. But after a year in office, he has seen his approval rating tumble among this demographic, and that change could spell trouble for Democrats in the midterms.

A poll conducted in late January by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 60% of Black voters in Georgia approved of how Biden is doing his job. That was a 20-point drop from an AJC poll in May.

Interviews with voters suggest the reasons behind Biden’s lagging approval ratings among Black voters — and the overall electorate — vary. They include his failure to overcome Republican filibusters of voting rights legislation, his handling of the pullout of troops in Afghanistan and an inability to deliver on campaign promises such as reducing student loan debt.

Gaylon Calhoun, a tour bus driver who lives in Atlanta’s Pittsburgh neighborhood, cited conflicting messaging on COVID-19 as the reason why he did not approve of Biden’s job performance.

“There is too much inconsistency between him and Dr. (Anthony) Fauci,” Calhoun said recently. “‘You can do this, but you can’t do that.’ They needed to bite down on the bullet and get everything straightened out in America as quickly as possible.”

Softening support among Black voters creates real issues for Democrats, who worry the lag in enthusiasm and growing discontent will only make it harder for them to retain control of Congress after the November midterms.

President Joe Biden's approval rate among Black voters  has dropped more than 20 points between AJC polls taken in May 2021 and January 2022.

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

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Credit: Isaac Sabetai

However, frustration with Biden doesn’t appear to have weakened Black support for Democratic candidates on the ballot, including gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

In addition, Black voters interviewed cited Republicans in Washington as the primary roadblock preventing the president from implementing his agenda. Some expressed a willingness to extend grace and patience to Biden even as their frustration grows.

“Republicans are determined to sabotage everything he wants to do,” Calhoun said.

Biden has acknowledged that frustration among Black voters has contributed to his sagging approval ratings, but the White House also points out that he is just one year into a four-year term with time to turn things around. The president has also pledged to travel more and meet with voters so they can hear from him directly on his priorities and plans for America.

“I find myself in a situation where I don’t get a chance to look people in the eye, because of both COVID and things that are happening in Washington, to be able to go out and do the things that I’ve always been able to do pretty well: connect with people, let them take a measure of my sincerity, let them take a measure of who I am,” Biden said during a press conference last month in response to a question about how he can repair relationships with Black voters.

Biden had the backing of 92% of Black voters nationally in 2020, when he defeated then-President Donald Trump.

If the Republican nominee in 2024 were able to siphon away some of that Black support, that could be a threat to Biden in swing states, including Georgia where he won in 2020 by fewer than12,000 votes out of nearly 5 million cast.

Kelly Brown, a research analyst who lives in South Fulton, identifies as an independent and moderate these days even though she usually votes for Democrats. She said she grew discouraged after Biden did not follow through on promises made during his campaign, particularly when it came to reducing or eliminating student loan debt. That frustration grew when he ended a moratorium on student loan payments that was implemented during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.

The White House eventually reversed course and extended the pause on payments until May. Biden said during the campaign that he supported student loan forgiveness but wanted Congress to pass a bill.

“Now he is coming out more and more saying, ‘I don’t think I am going to be able to do that; we’re not going to be able to do anything,’ ” Brown said of Biden. “I feel like I was lied to in that respect.”

Those concerns don’t apply to Warnock and Abrams, Brown said. She is with both “100 percent.”

“I see them more; I hear from them more,” she said. “I know what they’re doing.”

Teri Platt is a professor at Clark Atlanta University, director of the Honors Program and campus adviser to an election engagement and access organization called CAU Votes. She said her students were split on attending after receiving invitations to Biden’s and Vice President Kamala Harris’ speeches last month on campus about voting rights.

“Many of the students were saying that this is a good thing because it needs to be spoken about in the seat of government in Georgia, and that it needs to be a strong statement, but it also needs to be an action plan,” she said. “Some of the students were concerned that it would just be another speech and that no real action plan will be articulated or no real action would result.”

Some of the students who were energized after supporting Democrats who won office in 2020 and the 2021 runoffs are less enthusiastic ahead of the midterms, Platt said. But she said there are also student volunteers who feel strongly about supporting Warnock and Abrams, Black candidates who once walked the same grounds of the Atlanta University Center as undergraduates.

By electing strong candidates in Georgia, the students see a workaround to the gridlock in Washington on issues such as voting rights.

“It’s not so much that Biden is impacting their choices, as much as the political context of Georgia that is impacting their choices,” Platt said. “And so they are really concerned about ‘If we don’t come out to vote, what could be the alternative?’ ”