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One thing that surprised me about Biden's approval is the lack of a rally round the flag effect so far. It hovered around 50% on poll averaging sites which is where it was before. (In case you don't know what the “rally around the flag” effect is, the president's approval usually goes up after a crisis.)

Why has Biden's approval been dropping lately? This runs contrary to what happens to presidential approval when a war time event or social unrest happens, which tends to increase the president's approval. Trump, who arguably handled COVID poorly received a rally round the flag effect, albeit a minimal one. This seems to be the opposite of what happened under Trump, where a plurality approves, but the approval is significantly lower than earlier.

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    The "rally round the flag" tends to occur when the USA is under attack or engaging the enemy. This is the opposite. See 1975, how much of a "rally round the flag" do you see in Ford's approval?
    – James K
    Aug 17 at 14:19
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    I'm not sure why you'd expect a "rally" effect, but if you do, I do think this is a reasonable question to ask.
    – Bobson
    Aug 17 at 15:20
  • About that thing that I noted where a plurality approves, I want to say something about it. In every presidential election from 2008 onwards, as of 2020, the Democratic candidate has won the popular vote by between 2 to 8 points, with Biden posting a roughly average performance in the popular vote over this span. In 2020, when Trump had a rally round the flag effect, his net approval rose to -3.5 at its peak. Now, Biden's approval is at around the same level. Maybe this approval is a manifestation of Democrats' somewhat narrow yet consistent popular vote advantage. Aug 20 at 16:45
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    @NumberFile It is often said that a fair compromise leaves everyone unhappy. Biden was a compromise candidate. The far left thought he wasn't left enough. The far right thought he was way too far left. Moderates thought he's a nut who's probably too elderly to be president, but at least he isn't Trump. Biden will likely never be wildly popular. The withdrawal from Afghanistan is seen as a self-inflicted defeat. And the scenes at the airport make it seem chaotic and mismanaged. This is seen not as something caused by outside forces, but as a result of American incompetence. So no rally.
    – Readin
    Aug 23 at 19:27
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+50

There are two likely reasons:

This isn't the sort of event that would generate a "rally around the flag" effect

While this fits into the general definition of "periods of international crisis or war" during which this effect can be expected, if you look at some notable historical examples - Cuban Missile Crisis, Bay of Pigs, Iran Hostage Crisis, 9/11, Operation Desert Storm - these are all either something that directly affects US citizens, or the US leading military aggression. Leaving Afghanistan does not fit in here, even if the Taliban sweeping back has caused an international crisis of sorts. While most comparisons between the Afghanistan withdrawal and the Vietnam withdrawal I would deem facile, this is one where it would be nice to have that comparison - unfortunately Watergate was happening around the same time of the Vietnam withdrawal which makes approval-rating comparisons impossible. And as others have pointed out, Ford did not see a significant bump wrt the final acts of withdrawal.

Hyperpolarization

Opinions about sitting presidents are largely baked in now. 538 has done a few pieces on the topic (link) (link). Biden did not really experience a "Honeymoon Effect" - another approval-rating phenomena - either, and while a bump could still be expected in a rally around the flag event, it would not be as pronounced as historical examples.

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Biden voted for the war in 2001, and was Vice President for 8 years of it. It's possible people don't see the fall of Afghanistan as a disaster that happened to him, but because of him.

Compare the fall of Afghanistan with 9/11. Bush had been president for just 9 months. He had never had any foreign policy experience before he became president, and he had no influence on any of the decisions that led to 9/11.

Biden, however, voted for the war in Afghanistan in 2001, he was vice president for 8 years of the war, and he changed the withdrawal plans that had been drawn up by Trump's administration. It seems like this is a disaster of his own making, much more than Bush and 9/11. It doesn't help that he specifically said we wouldn't see helicopters taking people off rooftops like Saigon, and just days later we saw exactly that.

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    Don't think your link supports your argument. The article says that one reason for extending the withdrawal period was that it had become evident that an orderly withdrawal by Trump's deadline wasn't possible. Aug 23 at 16:50
  • @PaulJohnson You don't think the Taliban would have been more amenable to the withdrawal if we had kept our side of the deal? I thought breaking deals was one of the things people hated about Trump, but it's ok when Biden does it?
    – Ryan_L
    Aug 23 at 17:10
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    @Rian_L Part of the deal was a ceasefire, which the Taliban did not respect. As long as the US was on course to withdraw the Taliban didn't attack US troops. No, I don't think that withdrawing by the original deadline would have made a difference, and in fact the Taliban have now compromised further over the full withdrawal from Kabul airport, allowing NATO troops to remain until August 31st. The Taliban have what they want. Angering the US just when it is about to leave would not serve their purposes. In any case the question was about Biden's approval ratings, not what the Taliban think. Aug 23 at 17:17
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Ford didn't get much either after Saigon '75. He actually lost an election 18 months later. There was a minor uptick in the summer of 1975 in his approval rating (Saigon fell April 30), but that barely put him over 50%, as his approval was below 40% in that spring.

enter image description here

(Data from https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/, plot: mine)

It's probably not reasonable to expect the effect to manifest over a withdrawal (even if that ends an unpopular war) coupled with the downfall of a former ally.

In general, the strongest rally-round-the-flag is seen immediately in the aftermath of an event when an aggressor killed thousands of Americans (in that event) like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. While the Taliban killed thousands of Americans too, that was over the course of 20 years... and no US troops were killed in Afghanistan in more than a whole year before this August. So there wasn't a close-enough timing. Also, the effect is usually seen when the president initiates action against the enemy.

Outside of those seldom-encountered circumstances, the effect [on initiating use of force or more generally when POTUS "vigorously responded" to an international crisis] is usually small, between 3% and 7%, according to one paper. So maybe Ford did see a "true" rally-round-the-flag, although Saigon '75 isn't discussed explicitly in the papers I've looked at (from this rally-round-the-flag perspective).

In general (same paper) the effect is more noticeable when the POTUS had low approval ratings beforehand (so that surely works in Ford's favor) and if there is bipartisan agreement on the policy/events. That actually seems to be lacking here a fair bit, regarding Biden: the withdrawal had more or less been agreed by Trump, but some Republicans have strongly criticized the final [mis]steps that they perceived in Biden's implementation. Fox News in particular has been absolutely trashing Biden on this, featuring Trump as one of the top critics as well.

As you're talking about ongoing events... nobody has a crystal ball, but NY Mag expects Biden's rating to "muddle through" the fall of Kabul. I haven't seen any pundits (I read) suggest he's going to get a large boost from it...

And with the benefit of a bit more time have elapsed, it looks like Biden's approval rating is taking a downturn due to Afghanistan... (about 4pp).

enter image description here

Americans seems to continue to approve the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan as a matter of principle, but disapprove of how it was done in practice.

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Biden wasn't the President in 2001 when the rally around the flag effect in this conflict arose.

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    It's not obvious why a RRTF effect would only apply to a the President who commenced a lengthy US conflict. Counter example: Harry Truman.
    – agc
    Aug 17 at 19:57
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    Harry Truman won the war. Biden concluded a war that the U.S. lost. The two are not analogous.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 17 at 22:48
  • If not losing is a necessary condition of RRTF, that too should be stated. Tennyson's charging light brigade and Alamo rememberers seem like "winners only" RRTF counter-examples. (I suppose one might argue that exceptions are made for those that die in battle.)
    – agc
    Aug 18 at 1:07

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