Reality Check: Biden At 42% In Context

Joe Biden's less popular than Al Gore? Than Dick Cheney? Say it ain't so. OK, it ain't so. A new Gallup poll out this week suggests that Biden's favorability rating has reached its lowest level since the Democratic National Convention. It's now 42%, a full 13 points lower than President Obama's current rating and ten points below where Biden rated at the inauguration. Gallup measured the ratings of Al Gore and Dick Cheney over the course of 1993 and 2001, respectively, and found that Cheney averaged a 65% approval rating and Gore, a 55% approval rating.

So how are these comparisons false?

As physicists know well, time is a dimension that changes along with space. Dick Cheney was quite popular after September 11, although less so than his boss, whose approval ratings, at one point, reached in excess of 80%. Even before 9/11, Cheney was popular -- remember how he was the "adult" who was going to keep George W. Bush in line? -- and his more controversial actions had yet to manifest. He did not become dead-weight until much later.

Gore's popularity was close to Biden's -- the mid to high 40s -- for most of 1993. It spiked after Gore confronted Ross Perot on NAFTA. (Gore actually registered a 42% approval rating on October, 29, 1993 according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.)

Going back even further, in October of 1989, Dan Quayle's approval rating was 43%. But that's Dan Quayle.

As Gallup notes, Biden's popularity track is not out of the ordinary. He wasn't really a well-known national figure until the ubiquitous Obama picked him, and he then he had to stand next to the most popular guy in the whole world for a few months.

Biden's number shouldn't be viewed in isolation, either. On the one hand, he's been teased for his exuberance, hyper-honesty and occasional true-to-form gaffe, and spoofs by cultural drivers like Saturday Night Live may have contributed to the impression that Biden is less of a serious guy than his boss. Biden will probably deal with some of this for the rest of his term.

But it may also be somewhat transient, as we're seeing right now, when Biden's view on Afghanistan is seen as influencing the course of his boss's decisions.

Biden's less popular than he was. What's not credible is the charge that he has no influence. Indeed, his approval ratings may reflect the tasks he's been assigned.

When the Czech Republic and Poland complained and needed reassurance that America stood by its security guarantees, Biden went over to sooth nerves. Biden's in charge of implementing the economic recovery, and certainly has suffered, along with Obama, from perceptions that it has slowed. Biden's been out on the hustings for health care...has been to Iraq three times.  Point being with the exception of Cheney, there's never been a vice president this involved in the major issues of the administration. Al Gore, who in his time was considered the most influential VP ever, had a discreet portfolio of issues like climate change and reinventing government. They were important, and not unpopular, but they were not the top-tier issues of the day. By contrast, President Obama has asked his vice president to take the lead or play a major role in some of the biggest issues of his presidency.

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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