As Biden Signs Relief Bill, Voters Give Him Highest Marks on Economy, COVID

Tomorrow will mark 50 days in office for President Biden, halfway to the 100-day symbolic milestone that became a yardstick in the first year of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency and even more so with John Kennedy’s too-brief tenure in the White House.

On March 1, this column took a look at Biden’s early numbers, but a wave of data has come this week to give us a more complete report card. A massive, 12,055-interview national survey by the Pew Research Center showed 54 percent of adults approving of Biden’s performance and 42 percent disapproving, for a net positive of 12 points. Remember, President Trump never reached 50 percent in a major national poll in four years.

CNN survey showed a more modest 51 percent overall approval, against 41 percent disapproval. Another poll out today, from NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College, was similar to the CNN poll, with 49 percent of adults approving and 42 percent disapproving. Among only registered voters it was 48 percent approve, 43 percent disapprove. 

For those who like to get into the weeds with the data, all three surveys, like many others, release a ton of data on quite a few questions. For now, let’s focus on the mega Pew Research survey, which has a margin of error of just 1.2 points for the overall approval and  2.2 points for some more-specific questions.

In the Pew survey, they asked respondents how confident they were that Biden could handle various problems facing the country. His highest score came on his handling of “the public health impact of the coronavirus outbreak,” with 65 percent expressing confidence.

Next up was Biden’s handling of foreign policy and the economy. About 56 percent of respondents were confident about each. In terms of “effectively handling race relations,” 55 percent were confident. About whether he could “effectively handle law enforcement and criminal justice issues,” and “make wise decisions about immigration policy,” 53 percent of respondents expressed confidence in him. 

His worst marks came on respondents’ confidence that he could “bring the country close together”—48 percent.

Now that the coronavirus relief package has passed the House and Biden has signed it into law, it will be very interesting to see what impact the procedure taken will have on other issues, like infrastructure. Has using reconciliation for coronavirus relief poisoned the well, or not? The testing of the waters has just begun.

One thing to look for is the phenomenon that political scientists Lynn Vavreck, John Sides, and Michael Tesler explored in their book, Identity Crisis, namely that identity was increasingly driving voting behavior and, to a certain extent, supplanting perceptions of how the economy was doing. 

They discovered that from John F. Kennedy’s presidency through George W. Bush’s, there was a very strong relationship between how Americans viewed the economy, as measured by the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment, and presidential job-approval rating. Beginning with Barack Obama’s presidency and continuing through Trump’s, that relationship effectively broke down. In fact, among many partisans on each side, their perception of how the economy was driven to a large degree by whether their party or the other party held the presidency. For many partisans, there is little that the other party and its leaders can do right, and little that their own party and leaders can do wrong.

Two questions jump to mind: First, will that connection between how people see the economy and how they believe a president is performing go back to how it was for the 48 years of Kennedy through Bush, or has partisan polarization taken hold to the point that this is the new normal? Second, what unique aspects will become apparent under President Biden?

By the time we reach that 100-day mark in late April, we will have a better idea.

This article was originally published for the National Journal on March 12, 2021.