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The writer is chair of Rockefeller International
Joe Biden’s record low popularity ratings get a lot of attention, yet leaders across the developed world are in a similar predicament to the US president — they have rarely been this unpopular.
I track leaders’ approval ratings in 20 major democracies, using leading pollsters such as Morning Consult, Gallup and Compolítica. In the developed world, no leader has a rating above 50 per cent. Only one country (Italy) has seen its leader gain approval in the 2020s. At 37 per cent, Biden’s rating is at a record low for a US president late in his first term — but above average for his peers.
Signs of old age may be hurting the 81-year-old Biden’s ratings but this does not explain the wider trend. Between 1950 and 2020, the average age of presidents and prime ministers in developed countries fell from above 60 to around 54. The leaders of Britain, Germany, France and Japan are far younger than Biden — but even less popular. All four have ratings below 30 per cent.
The debate about Biden centres on why he gets such low marks despite relatively strong recent economic data, including lower inflation. Yet approval ratings have been trending down for first term US presidents since Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Biden supporters hope the improving economy will eventually lift his ratings, but he is up against deeply entrenched trends.
Leaders across the developed world are, at least in part, victims of a long-term decay in national morale. Slower economic growth, rising inequality and a growing feeling that the system is rigged against the average person — all these factors are magnified by the polarising impact of social media.
In the US, Democrats have grown less likely to vote for a Republican, much less marry one, and vice versa. Polarisation is personal, bitter. Similar splits are widening in Europe, where voters have more parties to choose from and are turning on the established ones. Between the early 1990s and 2020 the vote share of extreme parties in Europe increased from near zero to 25 per cent. This was led by gains on the far right, which casts itself as a defender of the common people against outsiders and a pampered, global elite.
Social media appears to intensify partisan rancour. A solid majority in most developed economies — and nearly 80 per cent in the US — believe these platforms are widening political divisions. It may also be that the public is becoming increasingly alienated from democratic leaders because fewer talented people are entering politics, put off by the ploys required for survival in a digitised arena.
In the developing world, however, while social media can be just as widespread and as hostile in tenor, it seems to be inflicting less damage on incumbents. In my poll tracker for 10 of the largest developing nations, the majority of leaders still have a rating above 50 per cent. The sense of disappointment that shadows leaders of developed countries has yet to overwhelm their peers in the developing world.
One possible reason is that while globalisation and digitisation have helped lift the fortunes of many in the developing world, the developed nations have in recent decades seen slower growth. This is particularly true for the middle classes. From highs of at least 3 per cent in the 1960s and 1970s, growth in average per capita income has slowed in the US to 1.5 per cent, and in the large European countries and Japan to around one per cent or less. Perhaps not coincidentally, Japan has suffered the sharpest long-term decline in per capita income, and today has the least popular prime minister, Fumio Kishida, with an approval rating of 21 per cent.
Polls show that voters in advanced economies are losing faith that the modern capitalist system can generate opportunities for everyone, and are increasingly inclined to believe that “people can only get rich at the expense of others”. Most see themselves as “others”. In 2023, the number of people who expect to be “better off in five years” hit record lows below 50 per cent in all 14 of the developed countries surveyed by the Edelman Trust Barometer. Optimists were a minority everywhere. Even the positive vibes emanating from a rising stock market aren’t cheering people outside the financial world.
This bodes ill for incumbents, with national elections in many of the leading democracies this year. As recently as the early 2000s, incumbents were winning 70 per cent of their re-election bids; lately they have won just 30 per cent. To restore their traditional advantage, incumbents need to recognise that the connection between headline economic data and political support has broken. Voters are reacting to long-term decline, and are looking for fresh fixes.