With an economy posting significant GDP growth, a resilient labor market, and inflation and gas prices falling sharply across the nation, one of the early challenges for President Joe Biden‘s reelection campaign has been the disconnect between actual economic progress and the outlook of Americans. You can add America’s small business owners on Main Streets across the nation to the constituencies among which President Biden is struggling to sell his “Bidenomics” message.
President Biden’s approval among small business owners has hit a new low, according to the CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey, with a net approval rating of 30. Measured from his first days in office, the president’s approval has dropped by 13%, from 43% in the first quarter of 2021. Business owners who strongly disapprove of his handling of the presidency (56%) far outweigh those who strongly approve (13%).
The latest data, taken from a survey of over 2,000 small business owners conducted by SurveyMonkey for CNBC between November 16-21, echoes recent survey work from NBC News and others showing new lows in approval for Biden and hypothetical election rematch scenarios in which former president Donald Trump has the edge in battleground states.
After a recent NBC News poll found that nearly 60% of registered voters disapprove of Biden’s handling of the economy, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen appeared on CNBC to discuss the reality that is underlying the negative economic outlook, citing food prices and rent prices that remain high even if they have been dropping from the peak inflation period. “I do think we’re making considerable progress in bringing inflation down. But Americans do notice higher prices from what they used to be accustomed to,” she said on “Squawk Box” on Monday.
To be clear, the views of the small business community are significantly influenced by political partisanship, and it is a demographic that historically has skewed conservative. Only 7% of Republicans have a positive view of Biden, versus 85% of Democrats. The role of partisanship in the results flows down to issues as immediate as the holiday sales outlook, with 37% of GOP business owners expecting a worse sales season than last year, versus 15% of Democrats.
A mixed Biden endorsement among Democrats
Among Democrats, the Biden endorsement is mixed. Those saying they “strongly approve” of Biden’s handling of the presidency (44%) barely eclipses those (42%) who say they “somewhat approve.” While the largest block of business owners (48%) who identify as Democrats describe the economy as good, a combined 40% of Democrats describe the current economy as fair (29%) or poor (11%). And as a general statement, Democrats are also less likely (69%) to say their party will do more to help small business owners than Republicans (86%) who say the same about the GOP.
Among the key block of independents, small business voters remain closer to Republicans in their view, with only 26% expressing approval of Biden, and independents who strongly disapprove of Biden (48%) far surpassing those who strongly approve (5%). Biden still has time to make up ground among independent business owners, with only 13% saying they have already decided on a candidate, according to the survey, and nearly half (45%) saying they currently have no preference.
Business confidence edges up with sales, hiring outlook stable
The negative view of Biden comes amid a rebound in overall small business confidence, according to the survey, which saw it edge up to 46 in Q4, up from the all-time low of 42 the index had slipped back to in Q3. Confidence among Biden supporters, specifically, also rebounded from the prior quarter, which had tracked a notable slip. Also notable in assessing political versus economic views: small business confidence among respondents who disapprove of Biden has reached an all-time high for this survey during his presidency, at an index score of 40 in Q4. Across all political leanings, small business owners are more likely to rate the current conditions for their business as “good” or at least “middling,” as opposed to “bad.”
The sales and job outlook among business owners is also tilted to at worst a benign view. Nineteen percent of Republican small business owners and 20% of independents describe the economy as bad. Similar minorities of small business owners across political affiliations expect revenue and staffing levels to decrease over the next 12 months, and they are much more likely to predict, at worst, a stable outlook for both sales and hiring.
Inflation, interest rates continue to influence Main Street views
Inflation and interest rates remain primary reasons for Biden’s struggles to gain more support from the small business community, according to the survey. After the most aggressive Federal Reserve interest rate hikes in decades, many small businesses are faced with double-digit percentage loans, if they can even access lending in a much tighter banking and credit environment.
And even with all of the major inflation data points showing significant progress made by the Fed in bringing prices back under control, small businesses — which are much less likely than large corporations to benefit quickly from a drop in input prices — lack confidence in the inflation outlook, a view of the potential for reigniting inflation that in recent months has also been rising among consumers, even as prices fall.
In spite of both consumer and wholesale prices falling to multi-year lows in recent reports, a majority of small business owners say inflation has not peaked, with 70% saying prices will continue to rise, including 43% of Democrats who hold this view.
Seventy percent of small business owners, including over half of Democrats, say they are still experiencing a rising cost of supplies, while 42% say wages are still going up.
Sixty-six percent of Republican business owners and 62% of Democratic business owners say they have offered higher wages in the past three months to attract workers.