The first six months in the White House are often frenzied for presidents as they push for big policy changes to try to live up to their campaign promises. President Biden is no exception. In his first 100 days in office, he signed dozens of executive actions and pursued sweeping legislation, like his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package, which offered Americans further relief from the pandemic, and his ambitious two-step infrastructure plan. The hope for Biden, as with most presidents, is that his accomplishments will placate Americans who already support him while also winning over some who don’t.
But as it turns out, few Americans have changed their minds since the 2020 election. Biden’s job approval rating over his first six months in office was the steadiest such rating of any recent president during that period, according to FiveThirtyEight’s historical approval rating data. His approval has ranged from a high of 55.1 percent on March 22 to a low of 51.1 percent on July 15 — a difference of just 4 percentage points, as the chart below shows.
Biden’s steady approval rating outdid even that of former President Donald Trump, whose numbers were notoriously steady. Trump’s approval numbers had about a 10-point spread, from 38.0 percent to 47.8 percent in his first six months in office. Other recent presidents, such as Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, all saw considerably more volatility in their ratings during the same period in office.
Biden’s fairly static numbers are at least in part a reflection of the lack of major scandals in his administration as well as its avoidance, for now, of deeply unpopular policies — developments that have tripped up some of his predecessors. For instance, Trump’s approval rating dipped in March and April 2017 as the GOP began its push to pass health care legislation that was very unpopular in the polls. And Clinton’s approval fell all the way into the upper 30s in June 1993 as his economic agenda struggled to get going and his proposal to allow gay people to serve in the military got pushback.
By comparison, Biden has polled very well for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, arguably the biggest challenge facing the country in the past year and a half. He’s won over even some Republicans on that front, although that hasn’t translated into much cross-party approval overall. Biden’s administration has also focused on trying to pass legislation that is broadly popular with a majority of the public. And right now, Americans generally feel pretty good about how their lives are going, and somewhat more confident about how the economy is doing, as the country reopens and (hopefully) gets back to normal.
That’s not to say all is going swimmingly for Biden. His administration has received lower marks for its handling of immigration and crime, issues that could cause the president trouble later on. More fundamentally, Biden’s narrow band of approval also reflects how polarized and divided our country is right now. First, Biden’s inability to stretch beyond 55 percent approval shows that presidents may no longer be able to count on much of a “honeymoon” period, largely because it’s so difficult to garner support from the other side of the aisle. Whereas around one-fifth to one-third of Republicans approved of Obama’s job performance at various points during his first six months in office, Biden’s approval rating among Republicans during the same period has usually hovered below 20 percent — sometimes even below 10 percent. Second, Republicans’ opposition to Biden has been more intense, too. More than 60 percent of Republicans have told pollsters that they not only disapprove of Biden but strongly disapprove of him. (In contrast, not quite half of all Republicans said the same of Obama in his first six months.)
On the flip side, polarization has helped Biden stay above 50 percent because he has nearly unified backing among Democrats. It hasn’t been unusual for a president to have the support of at least 90 percent of his party’s base early on — Obama and Bush also had that level of backing in their first six months — but Biden may be better positioned to hold on to that support going forward. We only have to look at Trump’s standing in the latter half of his presidency for evidence of this, as he regularly polled at around 90 percent among his party base even though fewer than 10 percent of Democrats approved of him.
That said, Biden is running somewhere close to even among independents, depending on the poll. By comparison, Trump was notably underwater among independents throughout his presidency. How Biden continues to fare with independents will be key, as his showing among that group during his first six months is another reason why his average approval rating has been 53.4 percent, or 12 points better than Trump’s 41.4 percent.
Biden’s approval rating is also important because it can tell us how Americans are feeling — and what the electoral environment may look like ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Historically, the president’s party has almost always lost ground in the House, and often in the Senate too. This trend could be particularly damaging for Democrats in the midterms, as they hold just a 222-to-213-seat majority in the House1 and only the slightest edge in an evenly divided Senate thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote.2
There are exceptions to this midterm “presidential penalty,” but they’ve usually occurred when a president has had a high approval rating — such as Clinton in 1998 or Bush in 2002, when both topped 60 percent approval. Knowing this, Biden may need his approval rating to remain in the mid-50s or better to help his party retain control of Congress. But although his standing has been as high as 55.1 percent during his presidency, it may be tough to get back there — and stay there — in light of just how divided the country is.
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