After four years of staring at Donald J. Trump’s generally poor and remarkably stable job-approval ratings, followed by a close election and an ultrapolarizing transition period, it’s hard to know what to expect of public assessments of his successor, Joe Biden. But today, less than a week into his tenure, we have the very first Biden job-approval polls, for what they are worth — and, so far, it’s good news for the 46th president.
The reliably Republican-tilting robo-pollster Rasmussen, the only survey that regularly showed Trump at over 50 percent job approval, now has Biden at 48 percent approval, with 47 percent disapproval. Reuters/Ipsos, an online survey that doesn’t have much history of partisan lean, has Biden’s job approval at 57 among registered voters, with 32 percent disapproval (Biden’s job approval is 92 percent among Democrats, 21 percent among Republicans, and 52 percent among independents). Reuters/Ipsos had Trump at 35 percent approval and 63 disapproval in their final assessment of his performance, though that was immediately after the Capitol riot, and he retained a 70 percent positive rating from Republicans. At the end of his presidency, Trump’s job approval in the RealClearPolitics averages was 41.1 percent approve — 56.1 percent disapprove; at the beginning, it was at 44.3 percent approve — 44.2 percent disapprove (by the end of January 2017, the ratio had turned negative for good).
Perhaps a better yardstick of Biden’s current popularity is his personal-favorability rating, a metric that is usually pretty close to job approval once a president has settled into office. According to the RealClearPolitics averages, Biden’s favorability ratio just prior to his inauguration was 50.5 percent favorable and 41.7 percent unfavorable. Trump’s was at 41.3 percent favorable and 50.0 percent unfavorable just prior to his inauguration, and wound up at 38.0 percent favorable and 57.7 percent unfavorable as he left office.
So there are no signs just yet of any huge Biden public-opinion honeymoon, but he’s in better shape than Trump was for pretty much all of his presidency. As Geoffrey Skelley explains at FiveThirtyEight, big presidential honeymoons used to be common: From Eisenhower through George H.W. Bush, all newly elected presidents had average job-approval ratings over 60 percent during their first six months in office. Barack Obama was a throwback in that sense, averaging 60.2 percent. But Clinton, George W. Bush, and Trump fell well short of that mark (Trump most conspicuously, at 41.4 percent approval). As Kelley notes, things have just changed:
“One of the things that’s happened is that old-fashioned ‘let’s give the guy a chance’ has kind of evaporated,” said Jeffrey Cohen, a political scientist at Fordham University who studies public opinion and the presidency. “Instead, people don’t break out of their voting patterns. The divisiveness that you see in election campaigns stays.” Casey Dominguez, a political scientist at the University of San Diego who studies presidential honeymoon periods agrees, citing the media as a major driving force in this: “Today, we have a news media environment where there are sources of information that are just never going to be favorable to Biden.”
We have no way of knowing at this point whether the condition of the country will be a buoy or an anchor to Biden’s popularity — or indeed, if partisan polarization is now so intense that his job approval ratings will be as stable as Trump’s. But he begins in a better place than his predecessor and has a fighting chance to break out of the partisan ghetto of limited support.