If Biden hopes to enact his agenda and establish his own legacy, he is going to have to decide which method he prefers: compromise or fight for change.
President Joe Biden entered the White House with something his predecessor, President Donald Trump, never attained: an approval rating above 50%. That’s according to polling by the Pew Research Center, Gallup and Morning Consult, all of which found Biden’s approval rating at 56% or higher. By contrast, Trump left office with a 34% approval rating and an average rating of 41%.
Biden began his presidency with appeals to unity and a promise to seek bipartisan governance. In a presidential election that had the highest turnout since 1900, Biden also achieved the largest popular vote total in history, earning 81,281,502 votes to Trump’s 74,222,593.
With all of that going for him, Biden still faces a bitterly divided political landscape and entrenched party polarization. To succeed, he will have to meet the challenge of appealing to both the centrist and left-leaning members of his base.
Biden ran on a platform that the Justice Democrats, a progressive political action committee, described to Vox’s Matthew Yglesias as being “the most progressive platform of any Democratic nominee in the modern history of the party.” Yet, Biden, who has long been considered a centrist, stated in his inaugural speech that he would “fight as hard for those who did not support me as those who did.”
Reconciling those two realities will be difficult, especially as the progressive wing of Biden’s party is urging him to see his victory as a mandate to pass transformative legislation. Biden may have begun his presidency with strong favorability ratings, but if he hopes to parlay that support into legislative victories and a potential second term, he will have to be a decisive leader.
President Biden’s approval ratings
Pew Research Center
On January 15, the Pew Research Center released its final poll of the Trump presidency. The poll, which was conducted from January 8-12 in the aftermath of the attempted coup at the United States Capitol, was filled with good news for Biden and bad news for Trump.
Rated on their conduct since the election, Biden achieved a 64% approval rating, with 37% of respondents saying his conduct had been “excellent.” Only 15% of respondents rated his conduct as “poor.” Trump’s conduct, on the other hand, was rated poor by 62% of respondents, with only 8% rating it as excellent. Among Trump’s supporters, the poor rating was 20%.
(In this same poll, a majority of Republicans stated that they believe Trump won the election.)
Pew also found that 62% of Democrats believe Biden should work with Republican leaders to accomplish things, “even [if] it means disappointing some of his voters” as opposed to 37% who stated Biden should “stand up” to Republicans even if that means it’s more difficult to address critical issues.
On the contrary, 59% of Republicans wanted their leaders to “stand up” to Biden, with only 38% saying that Republican congressional leaders should work with Biden even if it means upsetting some Republican voters.
On the eve of Inauguration Day, Gallup released the results of a poll conducted from January 4-15 which focused on Biden’s transition. The poll found 68% of respondents approved of Biden’s handling of his presidential transition, with 31% disapproving.
In response to the same question four years early, Trump was given a 44% approval and a 51% disapproval. President Barack Obama, for whom Biden served as vice president, achieved an astronomical 83% approval rating back in 2009 on the same question, with just 12% disapproving.
Biden’s favorability rating in the Gallup poll was 57%, his highest park since January 2017 when he ended his second term as vice president. His unfavorability was 41%.
On January 25, Morning Consult released its first poll from Biden’s presidency (conducted January 22-24). It found 56% approved of Biden’s job performance, while 34% disapproved and 10% didn’t know or had no opinion. Among Democrats, Biden’s approval was 91%, while it was only 18% among Republicans. In January 2017, Trump’s approval among his own party was 83%.
Both Biden and his vice president, Kamala Harris, have experienced minor bumps in their approval ratings among Democrats, Independents and Republicans since being inaugurated. The result is that Biden now has “his highest favorability rating among the overall population since Morning Consult began daily tracking of the metric in May 2020.”
A mandate for compromise or change?
With a record-setting vote tally and relatively strong support (at least in comparison to his predecessor), Biden now must decide how he will wield his mandate.
Right-wing critics have already made it clear that they will be skeptical of any overtures to civility from Biden and the Democrats. They have expressed doubt over the sincerity of Biden’s pleas for unity, with members of the Republican Party claiming that Biden’s “war on white supremacy” is in reality a veiled threat against conservatives.
In light of that skepticism, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has been urging Biden to ignore “compromise for compromise’s sake” so he can push forward with his agenda. In addition to a US$1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package, that agenda includes raising taxes on wealthy Americans and corporations and addressing climate change.
Biden has made it known he wants to tackle a wide spectrum of issues facing the nation in his first 100 days. That ambitious agenda was given a better chance of becoming a reality when Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won the Georgia Senate runoff elections on January 5 to give Democrats control of both houses of Congress.
However, with a razor-thin majority in the Senate, the Democrats may have to bypass or abolish the filibuster (a delay tactic often used by the minority party) to get any legislation done. Ending the filibuster is an option that Biden has previously stated he does not support. It’s also a move that is opposed by two centrist Democrats, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
Through executive orders, Biden can undo much of the actions Trump passed during his presidency. But if Biden hopes to enact his agenda and establish his own legacy, he is going to have to decide which method he prefers: compromise or fight for change.
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