Nearly two months into Joe Biden’s presidency, a couple of things are obvious about his relative level of popularity as measured by job-approval polls. First, despite record-high partisan polarization, Biden began his administration with a significant popularity advantage over his defeated predecessor (according to Gallup, the most complete source for comparing presidents over time, Biden’s initial job-approval number was 57 percent; Trump’s was 44 percent). Second, Biden’s popularity has not eroded yet.
That is not historically unusual; Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and both Bushes had similarly stable initial trajectories in popularity. But the last two presidents didn’t: Obama lost five points in job-approval ratings over the first two months, and Trump lost four points. These losses were by no means identical: Obama began with quite the honeymoon (an initial Gallup job-approval rating of 67 percent); Trump, not so much.
What makes Biden’s early job-approval numbers potentially noteworthy, aside from their stability, is that the polarization trend made famous during the Obama and Trump presidencies has reached and remained at astronomical levels. As Geoffrey Skelley notes, the partisan gap in job-approval numbers in the first February of the past five presidencies has risen dramatically: from 50 percent for Bill Clinton (in this case, 74 percent of Democrats approved of his performance versus 24 percent of Republicans) to 56 percent for George W. Bush to 59 percent for Obama — but then to 85 percent for Trump (with 90 percent of Republicans approving of him, compared to just 5 percent of Democrats), and now 84 percent for Biden. Among other things, that means that job-approval numbers are likely to vacillate less than in less polarized times, with a lower ceiling and a higher floor, thanks to the partisan nature of so many voters’ evaluations.
But even within the narrow parameters set by increased partisanship, there are some interesting variations. Obama’s initial policy salvo was an economic stimulus package that, despite its “bipartisan” character, was less popular than Obama himself, according to a CNN survey at the time. Trump began his presidency with two immigration gestures (announcing initial construction of a southern border wall, and banning travel into the U.S. by citizens of Islamic countries) that were not very popular generally but elicited positive reactions from Trump’s base. Biden has focused almost exclusively on a COVID-19 relief and stimulus package, which is significantly more popular than he is.
So despite perceptions that Biden is gambling political capital by promoting a large and ideologically liberal piece of legislation via the partisan budget reconciliation vehicle, the better way to understand it is that the 46th president is building political capital by so exclusively concentrating on doing something popular.
There’s no guarantee, of course, that Biden’s popularity will hold up for an extended period of time. Two of the presidents who did as well initially as Biden wound up with historically terrible job-approval ratings before they were done: Jimmy Carter’s dropped into the 20s by the fall of 1979, as did George W. Bush’s during his last year. But at a time when it’s tough to overcome the polarization that so notably limited Democratic gains in 2020, Biden’s headed in the right direction.