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Gen X and President Biden: Reality bites

President Biden is most unpopular among members of Generation X, who lean more conservative than those in other generations.
Mario Tama
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Getty Images
President Biden is most unpopular among members of Generation X, who lean more conservative than those in other generations.

Tara Schoettle's disapproval of President Biden can be traced back to her childhood.

"I have a distinct memory of when Carter was in office and we had to wait in line for gas," Schoettle told NPR, in reference to the gas shortages that impacted the U.S. under Democratic President Jimmy Carter. "I feel the liberals just have always done this sort of thing and they love to word things as socially responsible and things like that, but they're fiscally very irresponsible."

At 54, Schoettle is squarely a member of Generation X — those born between roughly 1965 and 1980. That political memory alone helps explain why they tilt more conservative than members of other generations. Schoettle has voted for a Democrat for president just once: Barack Obama in 2008.

"Gen X is the most Republican of the generations," said Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of the book Generations, which examines what drives generational differences.

NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist polling underscores that point: By generation, Biden has the highest disapproval rating from Generation X (62%), compared with the Silent/Greatest Generation (48%), baby boomers (48%) and Generation Z/millennials (50%). Biden also has the highest "strongly disapprove" rating from Gen X (52%), compared with the Silent/Greatest Generation (41%), boomers (39%) and Gen Z/millennials (35%).

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Twenge says that political leanings of generations can be influenced by the popularity of the president when that generation is in adolescence or young adulthood. For Gen X, that is largely defined by an unpopular Carter and a popular Republican president, Ronald Reagan.

Even for Gen Xers who say they generally approve of Biden, they share a nostalgia for the politics of their youth.

"Ronald Reagan made me feel good about being a U.S. citizen, being American," said Ken Piccolo, 56, a substitute teacher from San Jose, California.

"He made you feel like it was worthwhile and we're a good country and we're doing some good stuff, because just the way he interacted with the state, the world, the country — he just made you feel good about being American."

But Piccolo's support for Biden is a tenuous one. He feels good about where the economy is going, but he's still concerned about Biden's age. So if there's a younger — and viable — Democrat, he says he might switch his vote. But as of now, he says his Biden vote is driven by a disgust at the influence that former President Donald Trump has had over the Republican Party. "I don't hate the Republican Party. I hate the MAGA wing of it," he said, "These people are lunatics."

It's still about the economy, stupid

Generation X voters were raised on Rock the Vote and political engagement in the Clinton years, but they are increasingly conservative and opposed to President Biden.
Joyce Naltchayan / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Generation X voters were raised on Rock the Vote and political engagement in the Clinton years, but they are increasingly conservative and opposed to President Biden.

Gen Xers are facing a cascading series of economic concerns: aging parents, raising children, saving for retirement, rising housing costs, higher food and gas prices, all hitting most acutely in middle age.

"You're feeling every squeeze of modern society at this age in your life, which most people in their 40s and 50s do feel," said Amy Walter, a nonpartisan political analyst with The Cook Political Report and a Gen Xer. "I just think we are uniquely situated in a very uncomfortable place right now."

That resonates with Sheryl Graham, 55, who lives near Clearwater, Fla., and has three kids. "We live paycheck to paycheck. I'm thinking I probably have to sell my house to make money," Graham told NPR.

"If we get another Republican back in office, I think I will be just fine," she said. Graham said she has voted for Democrats in the past, specifically Bill Clinton and Obama, but never intends to again.

Walters added that Trump's "Make America Great Again" messaging appeals to older voters, particularly boomers but also their Gen X children. "They saw their parents doing well or making a decent life that they feel like they weren't able to have the same access to — could be the other piece."

That message is also more likely to resonate with white Gen Xers — who make up 60% of their generation — than nonwhite individuals. Darnell Bender is 55, Black and a Democrat who lives outside Atlanta. He feels pretty optimistic about the state of the country under Biden. "On the Republican side, you know, it's like America has fallen into this dark, deep crevice and only this person can drag us out. And I'm like, I don't see that," he said, "The way Trump tries to paint it, to make it almost like scaring people into voting for him, which is crazy."

Yesterday's politically correct meets today's woke

Culture wars are nothing new for Gen Xers — the generation that coined the term "political correctness" — but the current debate over when and how to police speech is particularly unpopular with them. "Gen X really prides themselves on being tough, and based on their upbringing and childhood and their adolescence, there's just a lot of pride in being able to roll with the punches and being able to have conversations with people you disagree with," said Twenge.

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Gen Xers are not as culturally conservative as boomers — the generation that preceded them. But they're also not as culturally progressive as millennials and Gen Z.

Sean Trende, senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics and himself a Gen Xer, described it as "almost like a cultural libertarianism."

"We call it culture war or cancel culture or wokeness or whatever — I think Generation X is the one that that reverberates negatively with the most," he said.

Graham said she feels this tension in her own family with her three children.

"We'll say something that we think is totally not wrong, and they're like, 'Well you can't say that.' And I'm like, 'What do mean?'" she said.

"Like the word 'retarded,' like 'That's retarded to say,' or 'Is that the Black guy down the street?'" she explained. "And they'll be like, 'Why are you saying that?' We're raised where we don't think there's anything wrong to say, 'Is that retarded?' or 'Is there a Black guy down the street?' You know what I'm saying?"

On the other hand, Gen X Democrats like Piccolo point their disgust at conservative efforts to curb speech, particularly in schools and libraries. "You can't change history. They want to modify history. They want to ban books. And they wanna do all this stuff that's like, yeah, you're tipping towards fascism," he said.

Slacker generation shrugs at politics

Compared with boomers or millennials, Generation X is rarely invoked in national political debates. "I think the big question there is: Is that a function of age, or is that a function of generation? Because when it was the baby boomers who were middle-aged, everybody was paying attention. So I think it might be that that generation in the middle is Gen X, who always gets ignored," said Twenge.

Gen X is also smaller in population than other generations and has had lower political and voter participation, comparatively. "They just have not voted at the same rates as the boomers before them and the millennials after them. And there's also a significant delay in Gen Xers getting elected to political office," said Twenge.

This is true for Danny Dotson, 55, an independent who lives near San Antonio. "I have never involved myself in politics for a majority of my life until really, I guess, after Trump became president," he told NPR. He said he has voted sporadically in national elections, skipping out entirely in 2016 and voting for a third-party candidate in 2020. As for 2024? "My first feeling is overwhelming disgust at our country for allowing these two people to run again," he said.

Dotson doesn't know whom he will vote for next year, but he said he will absolutely cast a ballot. "I'm 100 percent certain I will not vote for either one of those people," he said.

Call it the "Oh, well, whatever, nevermind" vote.

Jeongyoon Han contributed to this report. contributed to this story

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Susan Davis
Susan Davis is a political correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.