Why? Because Trump deliberately stoked partisan hostilities. He enlarged the divide between Democrats and Republicans and fueled the over-heated politics in Washington. He therefore could not reach widespread approval.
Biden claims he is different. He is the anti-Trump, a bi-partisan centrist, and a compromiser. The white-hot partisanship of the Trump era cools with ‘ole Joe’ at the helm. At least this is what his campaign promised.
These claims appear overly optimistic – especially now as the Senate conducts an impeachment trial.
However, before passing judgment, let’s take a closer look at Biden’s public approval.
The initial job approval ratings of the past 7 presidents are displayed below – for every president, Gallup reported approval during the first month in office.
Biden’s rating catches the eye for two reasons. First, it’s 12 points higher than Trump. Second, Biden’s approval is slightly above the historical average of 55%. In an era of party polarization, both results stand out.
Recall, Biden’s key campaign message emphasized his ability to reach across the aisle, appeal to the center, and broker political agreements. Turns out, Independents liked that message. Indeed, after Trump had won Independents in 2016, Biden’s centrist pitch recaptured them in 2020.
Only Obama received higher initial approval ratings from Independents, and then by a mere point over Biden. Again, the contrast with Trump is informative. Trump’s combative style and consistent appeals to his base produced comparably low but unwavering public approval – 40% to 45%. Biden’s centrism shows a much higher ceiling. And even if Democrat support slips from current levels, with the help of Independents – and possibly Republicans, Biden can still maintain majority approval.
Joe Biden thus appears to be enjoying a honeymoon. Compared to past presidents, initial job ratings are above the norm and support from Independents is near record levels. The data seem to confirm Biden’s campaign promise. After a volatile 4 years, Biden is returning the country back to ‘normal’.
However, let’s now examine the true test of Biden’s bi-partisan appeal.
Approval from opposition party
Can Biden draw reasonable levels of support from Republicans? We know Democrat approval of Trump was often single digits. Similarly, during their second terms, Bush and Obama had serious difficulties realizing double-digit approval from the opposition party.
How then does Biden compare to recent president’s initial approval ratings from the opposition party?
The data are not encouraging. Republicans delivered a record low approval. Even Trump received a greater share of opposition support!
Opposition approval for Trump and Biden in fact demonstrate the significant consequences of political polarization. Polarization controls presidential approval far more than individual presidents control it. If this was not true, Biden’s approval among Republicans should be substantially higher. It’s not. It looks very much the same as Trump’s approval among Democrats – though even lower.
Biden received an impossibly high 98% approval from Democrats and a meager 11% from Republicans. This 87% partisan split is also a new record, shattering Trump’s initial party gap best of 76% (14% among Democrats and 90% among Republicans). Other party gaps in rank order, GWB 56%, Clinton 46%, Obama 45%, Reagan 36% and GHWB 31%.
From this vantage point, it’s difficult to believe Biden can unify the country. It seems little has changed.
At first glance, Biden’s first approval rating looks normal compared to past presidents and quite impressive relative to Donald Trump. It’s been a long time since Gallup’s approval ratings reached a majority and in the current political context Biden’s 57% appears strong. Similarly, Biden’s 61% approval among Independents is a positive indicator and represents a solid foundation to build public support for his agenda. These two facts suggest that Biden’s victory will return politics to the ‘good ole days’ – the time before Trump.
Yet, the data also portend considerable challenges.
During the so-called honeymoon period, Biden’s approval scores show the parties have never been farther apart. The splits surpass those recorded during Trump’s first month in office – an ominous marker of things to come.
Can we expect elected Republicans to assist Biden when so few in their own party support him? For 4 years, Democrats loathed Trump, delivering the lowest opposition party ratings in history. Whether this was deserved is another matter entirely. Congressional Democrats followed their constituents. Why now do we think Republicans should be any different? Because Joe Biden sits in the oval office?
Partisan identity is much stronger than a single politician. Trump proved that.
Here’s two thoughts about Biden’s first job approval.
First, bear in mind that Independent’s support separates Biden’s approval from Trump’s approval – nothing more.
Second, Independents are the solution to the partisan trap that has consistently ensnared recent presidents. Independents are a source of political power and base for reelection. Biden must find ways to reach out and speak to Independents and moderates; he must keep them happy.
Sure, an Independent/moderate strategy may discourage some liberal Democrats. But consider what Biden has achieved this past year. His sweeping primary win demonstrated the potency of centrism within the party – and his victory in November validated that strategy. Discouraged Democrats have no place to go – they made that choice months ago.
Finally, when the center seems to vanish, and patience wears thin, recent presidents returned to their partisan base. They could not resist the comfort of strong allies. And they paid the price, and, predictably, so did the country.
The past is not prologue. Biden can reject the base strategy – the goodwill of Independents gives him that opportunity.
In an era of strong partisanship, Independents are the most neglected group – yet, ironically, the largest. They now stand as the pivotal faction among Biden’s coalition. For this reason, the headline for Joe Biden’s early approval ratings should not be the record low level of opposition approval or the record high level of partisan polarization, or even 57% majority backing. Rather, the headline should scream Independents!