No matter what happens on January 5 in those two Georgia runoffs that will determine control of the U.S. Senate, Joe Biden is going to face a lot of Republican resistance when he takes office. All the bipartisan outreach he has promised will not likely change the situation; his outstretched hand will be repeatedly slapped away, if the precedent sent by Mitch McConnell and his party in 2009 means anything at all. And if Mitch does still hold the Senate gavel, Biden will be lucky to get a Cabinet confirmed.
But it may help Biden pull a Republican senator or two across the barricades to give him a lifeline and get some important things done if he has a measue of public opinion on his side. So it’s worth asking: will he have a “honeymoon” with voters that helps him put pressure on the oppositition to cooperate?
You do remember presidential honeymoons, right? If not, it may be because the last president worked hard not to have one — and succeeded. According to Gallup, Donald Trump’s average job approval rating for his first year in office was 38.4 percent, by far the worst among new presidents dating back to JFK. Only one other recent president, Bill Clinton, had an average approval rating below 50 percent, and that was at 49.3 percent, which would have been a banner showing for Trump. Obama, sometimes considered “divisive” (despite his own efforts, paralleling Clinton’s, to reach out to Republicans) had an average first-year job approval rating of 57.2 percent. Will Biden’s be more like Obama’s or more like Trump’s?
We obviously don’t know, but as FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich points out, Biden’s average favorability ratio just prior to the election was 51.0./43.9 — well over-water, and well above Trump’s 37.5/58.5 ratio the day he was elected in 2016 (according to the RealClearPolitics average). There is usually a pretty close relationship between favorability and job approval, particularly before there is much job performance to “approve.” So Biden will likely get off to a much better start than his predecessor in public esteem.
Partisan and ideological polarization (along with persistent mistrust of both parties in Washington) being what they are, Biden probably cannot aspire to the really high early job approval ratings of more distant predecessors like George H.W. Bush (first year average at Gallup: 65.9 percent) or Jimmy Carter (61.9 percent). And as these examples indicate, a “honeymoon” is no guarantee of success: both Poppy Bush and Carter were one-term presidents just like Trump. Time will tell whether Biden gets a few breaks. If he can stabilize the economy and keep COVID-19 under some control while presiding over an efficient, fair and effective distribution of vaccines, he may end 2021 more popular than he enters it. Given the likely balance of power in Congress and the deep-seated problems he faces, he’ll need all the popularity he can get.