Judging two foreign trips: President Biden may have fared better than VP Harris

June 25, 2021, 7:00 PM UTC

Foreign trips can help America’s leaders, or cause domestic criticism. President Joe Biden’s recent European travels received reasonably good marks, with Americans narrowly supportive of his handling of the trip itself and his handling of foreign policy in general. But in the latest Economist/YouGov poll, Vice President Kamala Harris’s previous travels to Central America were less well reviewed.

Half of Americans (52%)  are critical of Harris not visiting the U.S.-Mexico border as part of her original trip that focused on immigration, according to the June 20 – 22 poll. On Wednesday, the White House announced that Harris would travel to the border on Friday.

One-third of Democrats (34%) believe she should have visited the border on her earlier trip, something that 60% of Independents and three-quarters of Republicans (78%) agree with. Most white Americans (58%) think she should have made the trip, compared to two in five Hispanic Americans (40%) and one-quarter of Black Americans (26%). 

More Americans disapprove (36%) than approve (31%) of how the Vice President handled her visit with the leaders of Mexico and Guatemala, though the gap is small.  

The President is better viewed in this regard. Americans give President Biden narrowly positive opinions (43% approve, 38% disapprove) of his trip to meet with the leaders of NATO and the G-7 countries and to hold a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

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The major difference in the public’s view of the two leaders on these questions is because of Democrats’ responses (and to a lesser extent, Independents’ answers). Democrats are 17 points more likely to approve of how President Biden managed his trip (78%) than to approve of how the Vice President handled hers (61%). The gap among Independents is 16 points (37% approval for Biden, 21% approval for Harris). Republican approval for both President Biden’s (14%) and Vice President Harris’s (11%) performance abroad just barely reaches double digits. 

Democrats are less sure the Vice President has mastered foreign policy, compared to President Biden. Though nearly three in four Democrats (72%) believe Harris understands foreign policy at least “fairly well,” just one-third (32%) think she understands it “very well.” Nearly twice as many Democrats (61%) say President Biden understands foreign policy very well.

One difficulty Harris faced in her trip was that she was dealing with an issue that has become partisan and emotional: the state of the southern border. In the previous Administration, tough policies on immigration formed an important part of Republican goals, and immigration often ranked a very close second among Republicans as their most important issue.  

Today, immigration is viewed by just 7% of the public as the country’s most important issue, behind health care, the economy and jobs, climate change and the environment, national security, and taxes and spending. Republicans are nearly twice as likely (13%) as Americans overall to name immigration as their most important issue, though for them the economy and jobs (17%) as well as taxes and spending (17%) are at the top of their list, followed by national security (14%).  

Three in five overall view the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border as a “crisis,” with even more Republicans (80%) agreeing. For Republicans, it is a crisis of illegal immigration (53%); Democrats (half of whom agree there is a crisis), tend to categorize it as a humanitarian crisis (37%) rather than an illegal immigration crisis (29%). 

When it comes to looking at immigration, Republicans agree that the U.S. is a “nation of immigrants,” though to many of them that is not necessarily a good thing. One-third of Republicans think immigration makes the U.S. worse off. 

Four in five Democrats (80%) consider the United States to be a nation of immigrants. Democrats also overwhelmingly believe immigration makes America better (60%) not worse (11%). Americans over 65 are especially likely to believe the idea that America is made up of immigrants (82%) compared to just over half (54%) of those under 30 years old. 

The President’s journey may have given a small boost to his approval rating. Last week, as inflation fears grew, his approval ratings shrunk somewhat. This week approval outscores disapproval by ten points, (50% to 40%), and the margin of approval versus disapproval doubled.  

When it comes to Biden’s handling of foreign policy, 45% approve and 40% disapprove. And even on the economy, Biden’s approval rating rose four points (45% to 49%). Half (49%) now say they approve of how the President is handling jobs and the economy, while 40% do not.  

Vice President Harris also saw an increase in her favorable rating, which rose four points (42% to 46%), while her unfavorable rating declined by two points (46% to 44%), despite the criticism of her trip.  

See the toplines and crosstabs from this Economist/YouGov poll 

Related: How Trump has redefined conservatism 

Methodology: The Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 US Adult Citizens interviewed online between June 20 - 22, 2021. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the US Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 Presidential vote, registration status, geographic region, and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all US citizens. The margin of error is approximately 3.0% for the overall sample.  

Image: Getty