Joe Biden is a popular guy. That’s a common characterization of the new U.S. president three months into his term, and it’s one supported by data. As he approaches his 100th day in office on Thursday—a moment when journalists and the rest of the political class in Washington, D.C., traditionally assess an early presidential tenure—approximately 54 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s job performance while roughly 42 percent disapprove, according to the polling analysts of FiveThirtyEight. Biden benefits from a favorable comparison to his consistently unpopular predecessor, Donald Trump, who had an approval rating of just 42 percent—and a disapproval rating of 52 percent—on his 100th day. Yet by historical standards, Biden would appear quite unpopular. FiveThirtyEight notes that his “approval is still lower than any other newly elected president’s going back to Dwight Eisenhower’s in 1953.” So, how can we understand Biden’s popularity ratings against this kind of background?

David A. Hopkins, a professor of political science at Boston College, says Biden may be hitting the upper limit of what his popularity could be, given today’s climate of political polarization. “The default is that half the country likes you and half the country hates you,” Hopkins says. Biden’s current levels may also be temporary, Hopkins says, since presidents tend to enjoy a “honeymoon” of public approval in their first few months, after which their support tends to diminish. But Hopkin notes that Biden is “making some conscious choices to try to keep away from controversy and avoid alienating Americans unnecessarily, proposing policies he thinks will get broad support.” He isn’t foregrounding an issue like healthcare reform, which inevitably divides the country, and he’s ramped up COVID vaccinations and signed $1.9 trillion in pandemic relief and economic stimulus at an unusual moment when Americans support government action to address a national crisis. As that crisis wanes, Hopkins says, Biden’s longer-term popularity will depend, as U.S. presidential popularity has historically depended, on optimism about the country and its economy being headed in the right direction.


Graham Vyse: Biden appears to have gotten off to a particularly good start with the American public where it comes to policy and legislation, not least his economic stimulus and a proposed infrastructure plan. How do you interpret this?

David A. Hopkins: Checks from the government are always popular. The electorate is predisposed to approve of efforts to stimulate the economy, manage the rollout of vaccines, move toward the reopening of schools and businesses, and take measures that make it look like we’re moving in the direction of returning to normal life.

Biden has enacted specific policy that’s very popular. He’s also benefiting from a more general sense of optimism that the worst of the crisis is behind us, the country is moving in the right direction, the economy is moving in the right direction, and the vaccines are being distributed in an effective and competent manner to protect everyone from the pandemic.

Vyse: How far will the popularity of this agenda take him in public opinion?

Hopkins: There’s an upper limit, which he may be bumping up against, to what his popularity could be. That’s imposed simply by the extent of partisanship and polarization in our current political climate. He hasn’t made any major mistakes. The fact that he’s only at 54 percent versus 64 percent or 74 percent is a function of how many voters simply don’t look favorably on any leader of the opposite party from themselves.

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