For much of recent US history, the new president has seen a surge in popularity following his inauguration. However, that bump has shrunk in size over the past few decades, with President Trump and Biden seeing the smallest improvements compared to the post WWII average. Shane Markowitz writes that this decline is likely caused by increasing political polarization, which leads voters to disapprove of a president just because they belong to the opposing party of the party they support.
The first few weeks and months of a government are usually marked by a significant surge in support as many of the public rallies behind the new president take place after their inauguration. This so-called “honeymoon” phase is often supported by a temporary break in controversial politics between the political parties. Meanwhile, the media tends to show the Commander in Chief more respect and refrain from open criticism.
However, the president’s “honeymoon” seems to be on the way to becoming a political relic. President Joe Biden’s initial net approval rating, which is his disapproval rating subtracted from his approval, is just 16 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s survey average. Though above water and higher than any number President Donald Trump has ever hit, the numbers pale in comparison to the President’s historical averages in the post-war era.
The honeymoon has indeed seen a number of presidents, from John F. Kennedy (+66 net approval), Jimmy Carter (+58) and Ronald Reagan (+38) to George W. Bush (+30) and Barack Obama (+43)) enjoyed widespread public trust early in their administration, even after highly competitive and divisive campaigns.
What’s different now?
The main focus has been on President Biden since he entered the White House on January 20. His inauguration was the third most popular in television history, after Reagan and Obama. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis, the media reported extensively on press conferences, briefings and signing of executive orders in the White House.
But if it does, why isn’t Biden benefiting from a bigger approval boost? Part of it undoubtedly has to do with a transition where Trump sowed doubts about election results, repeatedly refusing to admit, inciting supporters to insurrection, and refusing to attend Biden’s inauguration ceremony.
Trump’s failure to accept his political rival marks a departure from the recent elections, in which candidates like Vice President Al Gore and Senator John McCain called for unity in their concessional speeches.
These conciliatory moves helped Bush get into office with 32 percent of Democrats and Obama with 41 percent of Republicans, according to Gallup. In contrast, a Monmouth University poll found Biden only got 11 percent of Republican approval.
Biden’s disapproval numbers – currently just under 37 percent – are significantly higher than those of the youngest presidents, with the exception of Trump, whose disapproval was around 44 percent in February 2017. Partisans now seem less willing to withhold judgment on an affiliated president to an opposing political party.
It’s worth noting, however, that Biden’s humble honeymoon in public can be part of a trend. Despite being the second lowest net approval, Bar Trump ever recorded at this point in a presidency, it has seen a steady decline in honeymoon bumps since the 1950s.
“210120-D-WD757-1607” from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is licensed under CC BY 2.0
The political polarization is likely to be to blame
This trend is consistent with the increasing political polarization in US society. Indeed, a 2019 Pew Research poll found that divisions between Americans have increased, as indicated by growing “negative feelings among partisans toward members of the opposing party”.
The percentage of political partisans who disapprove of their children marrying someone with a different political party membership has more than tripled since the 1960s. And now more than 40 percent of Americans view the opposing political party as evil. According to Gallup, Trump experienced the largest gap between support for the president from Republican and Democratic voters in US history.
Growing partisanship is also evident in the disappearance of political phenomena such as the “rally for the flag” effect, in which the population typically unites behind the president in national crises such as the Cuban Missile Crisis under Kennedy and the September 11, 2001 attacks under Bush .
However, unlike other world leaders, Trump received only a minimal surge in approval during the first wave of COVID-19. In order not to conclude that crisis leaps are just a matter of competent governance, it is worth noting that President Obama also received a small dent after two important events during his observation: Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the attack on Osama bin Loading in 2011. And despite all the bipartisan praise Obama received for managing these two situations.
The US political structure is partly to blame if the two-party system leaves political leaders with little incentive to weaken their partisan message. In contrast, some multi-party systems in Europe have seen social polarization waning in recent decades, as political parties turn to cordial relations, as they often have to rule together in grand coalitions.
The polarization of the US party is also underpinned by a rapidly evolving media environment. In the 1970s, most Americans consumed their news from a few select newspapers, magazines, and television news that largely met journalistic standards. However, since then, a variety of news sources have ensured that the public can get information from a number of outlets whose perspectives may be more in line with their own beliefs.
An increasingly competitive battle between Fox News, One America News Network and Newsmax to gain a foothold with conservative viewers is a symbol of this “echo chamber” effect. This also applies to some largely unmoderated alternative social media platforms like Parler, which are known for hate speech, vitriolic rhetoric, and disinformation.
What lies ahead
Despite a conciliatory tone at the beginning of his presidency, Biden is unlikely to benefit from a significant surge in public opinion without changing the structural factors that underline the growing political polarization. Conservative news media have already taken on an “opposition role,” according to reports from Media Matters for America, a nonprofit media monitoring group. In other words, partisans experience a different presidency even during their honeymoon, depending on the news sources they consume.
However, this does not mean that Biden cannot remain a popular president. It currently has 90 percent approval among Democrats and 47 percent among independents. Relying little on Republican support, Biden is also less likely to experience the often substantial post-honeymoon decline that most presidents suffer. However, there are numerous challenges, including vaccine distribution and economic recovery.
The approval of a job has historically affected a president’s ability to influence the action of Congress and secure re-election. As a result, how democrats and independents perceive the government’s handling of these crises could prove critical to the fate of Biden’s agenda and his prospects for another in office in 2024.
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Note: This article represents the views of the author and is not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
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About the author
Shane Markowitz – GLOBSEC Policy Institute
Shane Markowitz is an Associate Fellow at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute and holds a PhD in Political Science from the Central European University. His writing has been published in the Washington Post, World Politics Review, EUobserver, Social Europe, openDemocracy, and Populism magazine.