Why Biden’s Handling Of The Pandemic Polls Better Than His Overall Approval

Why Biden’s Handling Of The Pandemic Polls Better Than His Overall ApprovalMay 26, 2021

Throughout President Biden’s first few months in office, Americans have generally viewed the coronavirus as the country’s most pressing problem. But as communities reopen, vaccination rates rise and new COVID-19 cases fall, is Biden getting “credit” for his handling of the pandemic?

Well, yes, on the one hand. Americans rate Biden’s response to the pandemic quite positively, especially compared with former President Donald Trump’s. According to FiveThirtyEight’s average,1 63 percent approve of Biden’s handling of the coronavirus, while only 39 percent approved of Trump’s when he left the White House. 

But, on the other hand, no. Despite the importance of COVID-19 to voters, Biden’s overall job approval rating has never come close to his approval rating for dealing with the pandemic, which suggests that some segments of the public approve of his work on the coronavirus but not of his job performance in the aggregate.

The interplay between Americans’ views of a president’s performance on specific issues and Americans’ views of that president’s performance overall is messy, inconsistent and complicated by partisanship. Voters might largely approve of Biden’s handling of COVID-19, but the coronavirus isn’t the only issue that matters to them. And more importantly, partisanship tends to override most things when it comes to a president’s overall standing — whether it’s someone from the opposing party approving of a certain issue but not overall, or someone from the president’s party backing him overall but not on a particular problem.

Biden’s topline rating sits at about 55 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s approval tracker,2 about 8 percentage points lower than his approval on handling the coronavirus. And that gap has mostly widened since February.

So what’s going on here? Biden’s handling of the pandemic polls far better than not only his overall rating but also every other commonly asked issue question. Take a late April poll from CNN/SSRS, which found his job approval at 53 percent among adults. Sixty-six percent approved of Biden’s handling of the coronavirus, but his approval for handling the economy was at 51 percent, right around his overall approval. And Biden’s approval for handling immigration was 41 percent, far lower than his overall standing. That pattern — approval on the coronavirus higher, the economy close to his overall standing, and immigration well below — showed up in most polls we looked at.

Around one-third of Republicans approve of Biden’s handling of the pandemic in FiveThirtyEight’s tracker, but less than 20 percent of Republicans — and sometimes only around 10 percent — approve of his overall performance. So the credit Biden gets from some Republicans on the pandemic doesn’t really show up in how they rate his performance as a whole. That’s partly down to their disapproval of his approaches to handling other important issues — for instance, only 4 percent of Republicans in the CNN/SSRS poll approved of Biden on immigration. But Republicans also tend to care more about immigration than Democrats do, so partisan identity is a key filter here, too.

People are just less likely to say they approve of a president from the opposing party and more likely to say they approve of a president from their own. That’s partisanship. It can push people away from Biden despite their approval of his work on the pandemic — or it can keep them in line even if they dislike how he’s handling an issue like immigration.3 Partisanship also affects how people view those issues in the first place. Take the question of whether the economy is improving or getting worse, as tracked daily since June 2016 by Civiqs. The share of Democrats who thought the economy was getting worse rose after Trump took office, while the share of Republicans who thought the same spiked right after Biden won the 2020 election.

The tendency for partisanship to override issue considerations may actually be getting stronger, too. Historically, economic performance was one of the strongest predictors of presidential approval, but that has diminished as voters have become more likely to filter their views of the economy through their partisan identity. 

You could see the disconnect between economic ratings and overall approval in Trump’s term, too. Throughout his presidency, he tended to poll better on the economy than on most other issues, and notably better than on his job approval overall. For a comparison with Biden, we looked back at economic-approval polling during the first six months of both Trump’s and Barack Obama’s presidencies.4 Trump’s approval on the economy broke even during that period, but on economic matters, his net approval rating (the percentage of people who approved minus the percentage who disapproved) far exceeded his overall standing, as the table below shows. By comparison, Biden and Obama tended to poll worse — Obama a lot worse — on their handling of the economy relative to their topline job-approval numbers.

Trump got better marks on the economy than overall

Net approval ratings overall and for handling the economy during the first six months of the president’s term

Net approval rating six months into presidency
President Avg. Overall Avg. Handling of the Economy Difference
Donald Trump -14.8 -0.3 +14.5
Joe Biden +11.4 +8.5 -2.9
Barack Obama +31.2 +17.9 -13.3

Net approval rating is the approval percentage minus the disapproval percentage.

Sources: ABC News/The Washington Post, CNN/ORC, CNN/SSRS, Fox News, Gallup, Marist College, NBC News, NBC News/The Wall Street Journal, Pew Research Center, Quinnipiac University

Again, we can see how partisanship outweighs any credit a president might otherwise get for a specific issue, even big issues like a pandemic or the economy (which, it’s worth reiterating, has historically been rivaled only by issues of war and peace in contributing to a president’s popularity). Trump actually got a modicum of credit from Democrats on the economy: In late April 2017, a CNN/ORC poll found Trump’s approval on the economy at 49 percent, with 16 percent of Democrats approving. That’s not a lot of Democrats, obviously, but it was twice the number who approved of Trump overall in the survey, 8 percent.

As we’re seeing with Biden, a president may get some support from the other party on certain issues, even very important ones like the coronavirus, but that is unlikely to translate into much support overall — in approval and in elections. This is not to say a president gets no credit for handling an important issue well. After all, Biden is still polling marginally better among Republicans than Trump did among Democrats, and he’s got more support from independents.5

In other words, Biden is getting some credit for his response to the coronavirus pandemic, and if those good marks last, that could help Democrats in the 2022 midterms. Partisanship notwithstanding, handling a big issue well in the eyes of most voters still helps. It helps in terms of overall popularity and electorally. But the effect is greatly muted — by partisanship and by other issues.

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