What Americans expect in the early days of Joe Biden’s presidency

January 27, 2021, 5:40 PM UTC

President Joe Biden begins his term with an approval rating higher than his predecessor, Donald Trump, ever received in his entire four-year administration. Half of Americans (51%) in the latest Economist/YouGov Poll (the first conducted after the new president’s inauguration) approve of how he is handling his job.

President Trump’s approval rating usually hovered around 40%. Even in his “honeymoon period” at the start of his administration in 2017, just 43% approved of him. His highest approval (47%) occurred during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the end of his term last week, 42% approved and 53% disapproved. This week, looking back at his time in office, the figures remain approximately the same: 41% approve and 54% disapprove.

President Biden’s success or failure depends on what happens next and how he manages it. Although the new president currently fares better with Americans than President Trump did, his ratings are not particularly strong. They do not indicate that he will enjoy much of a honeymoon. Democrats overwhelmingly approve (81%), and a plurality of Independents (44%) agree. But Republicans are overwhelmingly negative (71%), even in the first few days of President Biden’s term. 

The lack of support from Republicans stems in part from their unwillingness to accept the election outcome. President Biden may be in the White House, but only 29% of Republicans think he legitimately won. More than seven in ten (72%) think he did not legitimately win the election. More than two-thirds of Republicans (69%) are pessimistic about the next four years with Biden as president; half (51%) describe themselves as upset when they think about his presidency. 

America has limited expectations for President Biden 

Expectations for the Biden Administration are limited. Most expect he will make some progress improving America’s image in the world, nearly half think he can move forward improving the economy, but relatively few think he can change the partisan tone in Washington.  

Expectations are also limited when it comes to keeping his promises. Americans often are skeptical presidents will keep promises: when it comes to Biden, although half (50%) believe he will at least try to keep most of them, only 28% think he will succeed in doing that. 

President Biden gets good marks for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic so far, as 52% approve (including a quarter of Republicans). These are also higher scores than President Trump ever earned for his handling of the pandemic.  

In the first few days of his Administration (and even before he was inaugurated), President Biden named his Cabinet choices and prepared executive orders to be promulgated in his first few days in office. By 43% to 30%, the public approves of his Cabinet nominations, with clear partisan differences in approval. Three-quarters (77%) of Democrats approve of the nominations; three in five (63%) Republicans disapprove. Independents divide closely, with 36% approving and 28% disapproving.  

All presidents issue executive orders (Donald Trump signed 220). But the image of the President signing orders takes on a different meaning depending on who is in the White House. Now, despite President Trump’s use of them, Republicans disapprove of presidents using executive orders by 45% to 33%. Americans overall approve two to one (52% vs 26%).  

But a few of President Biden’s orders receive significant support even from Republicans, suggesting some opportunities for possible cooperation. 

Most of Biden’s executive orders in this poll get the support of half or more of the public. There is disagreement when it comes to reversing President Trump’s travel ban for several Muslim-majority countries (42% of Americans approve and 41% disapprove) and canceling the Keystone XL Pipeline permit (35% approve and 41% disapprove). 

Several executive orders even have the support of a majority of Republicans, including extending the pause in student loan payments (53%) and evictions (53%), and banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (51%). By 48% to 44%, Republicans support Biden’s executive order that requests 100 days of mask-wearing and requires masks on government property. 

Those are hopeful signs for bi-partisanship. But Republicans reject his executive orders that change significant policies implemented by President Trump, sometimes overwhelmingly: the returns to the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accord are opposed by 64%, so too is the reversal of the Muslim travel ban (76%), the withdrawal of the Keystone XL pipeline permit (78%), and the halt in the construction of the border wall with Mexico (79%). 

See the toplines and crosstabs from this week’s Economist/YouGov Poll 

Methodology: The Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 US Adult Citizens interviewed online between January 24 - 26, 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 3.7% for the overall sample. 

Image: Getty