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CNN Poll: Most Biden detractors say he’s done nothing they like since becoming president

By Jennifer Agiesta and Ariel Edwards-Levy, CNN

Nearly 6 in 10 Americans disapprove of how Joe Biden is handling his presidency, with most of that group saying there’s literally nothing Biden has done since taking office that they approve of. The finding, from a CNN Poll conducted by SSRS in January and February, highlights the entrenched politics driving the nation at the start of the midterm year, with little agreement across party lines on priorities for the government or how to handle the coronavirus pandemic.

The President’s ratings have fallen across the board, the survey found. Just 41% approved of the way he’s handling his job while 58% disapproved, a significant drop from his approval numbers in CNN polling last year. Just 36% of independents and 9% of Republicans approved. Although his approval rating still stood at 83% among Democrats, that was down from 94% late last summer. Biden also continues to have more strong detractors than he does fervent supporters: 41% of Americans disapproved strongly of his performance as President versus 15% who strongly approved. Some of the shift in Biden’s numbers comes from a change in Americans’ partisan tilt: Republicans and Democrats were about at parity in the new poll, with fewer identifying as Democrats than in other recent CNN polling.

When those who disapproved of Biden’s overall performance were asked to name a single thing he’d done that they did approved of, 56% had nothing positive to say. “I’m hard pressed to think of a single thing he has done that benefits the country,” wrote one survey respondent.

Of those who generally approved of Biden, a smaller 26% couldn’t find anything negative to say. “I totally believe that he has the best interests of the American [p]eople in mind,” wrote another respondent. “I think he understands the severity and importance of his job and is doing the best he can.”

Overall, Americans said, 57% to 41%, that the first year of the Biden administration has been more of a failure than a success. For comparison, in January 2010, Americans were split about evenly on how to define Barack Obama’s first year as president. An 83% majority of Democrats called Biden’s first year a success — more than the 78% of Democrats who said the same about Obama in 2010. But just 35% of independents saw Biden’s first year as successful, down from the 44% who said the same of Obama.

Over the past two months, the twin challenges of widespread inflation and a deluge of coronavirus cases due to the Omicron variant appear to have hit Biden’s ratings hard: His approval rating for handling the economy has dipped 8 points to 37% since early December, while his ratings for handling coronavirus have dropped 9 points to 45%. And few Americans have deep confidence in Biden to either deal with the economy (18% said they had a lot of confidence in his ability to do so, down from 30% in March 2021) or lead the country out of the coronavirus pandemic (25% had a lot of confidence, down from 42% last spring).

Americans overall are divided over the best approach for the country to take on the pandemic now: 51% said that “it’s time to learn to live with the virus,” while 48% said that “stopping the spread of the virus must continue to be the highest priority.” The Omicron wave crested while the poll was being conducted, between January 10 and February 6.

Views on the best way to move forward are starkly divided by partisanship. Nearly three-quarters of Democrats, 73%, said that stopping the spread should remain the highest priority, while 72% of Republicans and 54% of independents said it was time to learn to live with the virus.

Demographic divides on this question tend to mirror the partisan tilt within each group — women were more likely than men to say stopping the spread should be the priority, and White Americans were more likely than Black or Hispanic Americans to say it was time to learn to live with the virus. But younger Americans, who tend to be more Democratic, were more likely than seniors to say it was time to learn to live with the virus.

There is also a sharp divide between parents and non-parents on this question: 64% of people with children under the age of 18 said it was time to learn to live with the virus, while 54% of those without young children said stopping the spread must continue to be the highest priority.

Those who say the US should learn to live with Covid-19 were generally positive about the country’s ability to accomplish that goal, with 69% saying they were at least somewhat confident the nation could do so. Those who said the country should remain focused on stopping the spread were less broadly optimistic, with 53% saying they were not too or not at all confident the country could stop the spread.

Three-quarters of Americans said they were burned out by the pandemic, with most also describing themselves as angry (60%) and worried (58%). About half (49%) said they were confused about the pandemic, with 47% describing themselves as optimistic.

Partisan gaps on these emotional reactions are more muted than on most Covid-related issues, though there is a wide partisan divide when it comes to worrying about the current state of the pandemic in the US (76% of Democrats were worried versus 43% of Republicans). Women were more likely than men to report being worried (65% vs. 51%) or confused (54% vs. 44%), while men were more optimistic than women (54% vs. 41%).

Beyond the coronavirus, there’s little public consensus over a single top issue for the US government to tackle this year. Given a list of options relating to domestic policy, 24% called reducing inflation the most important priority, followed by voting rights (16%) and border security (15%). Fewer than 1 in 10 chose reducing violent crime, slowing climate change, addressing racial inequality, solving the labor shortage, dealing with opioid addiction or expanding access to affordable child care. Republicans’ focus coalesced around two main issues: border security (31%) and inflation (29%). Democrats were most likely to cite voting rights (28%), with 15% or fewer agreeing that any other issue was a top priority.

But the poll suggests few have much faith in anything Washington or Biden may do this year. The share who say they felt even somewhat well represented by the federal government remained low at 32%, and only 21% of Americans said they currently had a lot of confidence in Biden’s ability to provide real leadership for the country. The share who said they had a lot of confidence in the President’s ability to work effectively with Congress has dropped by half since last March, from 32% to 15%, including a 28 percentage point drop among Democrats over that time.

In many cases, Americans’ views of Biden are well set — particularly the negative ones. Among those who generally disapproved of Biden’s performance, 61% said they disapproved of him on each of the eight issues tested in the survey.

At the same time, most who approved of Biden were able to find something they disliked when asked directly. About one-fifth expressed disappointment in some aspect of his economic performance, such as his failure to cancel student loan debtor the limits of his stimulus programs. One-tenth mentioned his response the coronavirus pandemic, and another tenth his foreign policies, often related to the Afghanistan withdrawal.

For Americans who disapproved of the President, those who could highlight a positive about Biden leaned toward economics — 15% praised policies such as the stimulus bill or the child tax credit. Another 6% said they approved of aspects of his Covid response, including the provision of free Covid tests. Four percent noted aspects of his temperament or personal characteristics, although this sometimes amounted to faint praise: “He’s not Donald [T]rump. That’s pretty much it,” one respondent wrote, while another noted approvingly that “I really like his new cat, Willow Biden.”

The new CNN Poll was conducted by SSRS January 10 through February 6 among a random national sample of 1,527 adults initially reached by mail. It’s the second survey CNN has conducted using this methodology. Surveys were conducted either online or by telephone with a live interviewer. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.

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