Biden at year one: Not enough focus on inflation leaves many frustrated


On one level, the story of President Biden’s first year is a simple one: Americans feel worse about the pandemic and economy than they did earlier in his term, and his ratings have suffered for it. On another level, it’s a little more nuanced: they do not exclusively blame his policies, but they do demand more attention to inflation just the same; there are many reasons the pandemic is seen as bad, but confusing information stands out as a factor that is hurting views of his handling of it. 

The story of his first year evokes emotions too: although most like Mr. Biden personally, words like “frustrated” and “disappointed” top people’s descriptions of things, along with the feeling that he’s “distracted” and not focusing on what they care about.

“Focus” is a running theme in this story. Majorities say he isn’t paying enough attention to either the economy or inflation — together, their top issues — not just that he isn’t handling them well. Few think Mr. Biden and his fellow Democrats are focused on the right things overall, either. Even within his own party, it’s inflation where his fellow Democrats give him their lowest marks, compared to other issues.

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His overall approval at the one-year mark is 44%, and it’s been in the 40s since this fall. That is, however, despite the fact that only 26% of Americans think things in the country are going well. Mr. Biden saw his approval drop months ago without a subsequent recovery. At the start of his term, his rating was up in the 60s, buoyed by optimism about getting the pandemic under control. The honeymoon had faded by summer. Approval fell after the Afghanistan withdrawal, sagged as inflation and COVID cases rose and has not rebounded.

Some of what we see today is the nature of the times, and some the public directly connects to his policies. His rating for handling the economy today is a mere 38%, and about half who think it’s bad blame his policies. Even more blame larger forces like inflation and supply chain issues. 

Focus

Perceived focus matters: he gets much more overall disapproval from people who don’t think he’s focused enough on inflation or the economy. That’s true even if you control for partisanship.

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What could change things?

When we ask people what could change their minds from here, the answers center on inflation, not legislation. His detractors say they’d think better of him if he manages to get inflation down — and say so at more than twice the rate than if the Build Back Better bill passes, or if voting rights does, for that matter. In all, the public’s evaluations of him appear framed around their most pressing problems, more so than on the fate of his bills in Congress.

Compared to fixing the economy or managing the pandemic, it’s not clear the passage of Build Back Better, if it happens, would immediately boost his numbers. For people who disapprove of him, they say their view of him would improve if he gets inflation down, much more so than if he passes the bill.

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COVID and expectations

A year ago, a slim majority expected the pandemic to get better with Mr. Biden in office. For a while it did. But today, with Omicron taking its toll, just a third think the effort to contain it is going well, with a similar number saying his policies are helping make it better. 

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His job rating on handling COVID is down to the lowest point in his presidency, and when asked specifically why they don’t think he’s handling it well, two-thirds cite information about the outbreak being confusing. Few attribute it to a lack of vaccinations.

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And some of the criticism stems from unmet expectations. That overall feeling of frustration is up from April. At the outset of his term, people told us, on balance, they expected improvement in the coronavirus situation (51% did, versus 22% who thought it would get worse); and by a tighter margin, on the economy (44% better versus 39% worse). 

Compare that to now. Most say the economy is bad. Most say the effort against the pandemic is going badly. Only 35% say his policies are improving the coronavirus situation, and 25% say he’s making the economy better. Half say they’re making it worse.

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But it is not just his policies directly that they blame for the economy. Americans who think the economy is bad also blame inflation, supply chain issues, and the coronavirus outbreak along with Mr. Biden’s policies.

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Year one in context

Compared to recent past presidents, one year into their presidencies, Mr. Biden’s overall job approval is higher than Donald Trump’s and lower than Barack Obama’s — he enjoyed better support from independents and Republicans at that point in his tenure. George W. Bush enjoyed exceptionally high approval one year into his presidency as the country rallied around him after the 9/11 attacks, getting majority support across party lines in a less partisan era. Mr. Biden’s current rating then trails Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan by a bit and Jimmy Carter in CBS News polling going back to 1978. This is partly because in the current, polarized era, presidents tend to receive dismal marks from the opposition.

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He’s still undergirded by support from Democrats but compared to the outset of his term, the decrease he’s seen has been especially pronounced among independents. Among independents who voted for him, approval has decreased by a whopping 31 points.

And young people: six in 10 voters under 30 voted for Mr. Biden in 2020, but his approval rating among Americans under 30 has dropped from 70% in February to just 42% now — double the size of the decline among other age groups.

There’s something of a popular narrative that Mr. Biden has difficulty with the more “liberal wing” of his party. This is not really true. Liberal and very liberal Democrats are still more approving of Mr. Biden than are moderate Democrats. Liberal Democrats still say Mr. Biden is focused on the right things. Some of this may be partisans sticking with the “team.” But while the very liberal don’t approve of Mr. Biden as strongly as they previously did, they do still approve in large numbers.

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Biden characteristics: Down on competency, empathy, but most still like him

Right after the much-criticized way U.S. troops left Afghanistan, Mr. Biden took a hit on some specific qualities, and he has yet to recover that lost ground. Fewer than half describe the president’s actions as “competent,” “effective,” or “focused.” More now call him “distracted.”

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Some of what’s keeping Mr. Biden’s job approval in the mid-40s may be his likability and that more Americans — especially those who voted for him — still prefer him to his predecessor, Trump. Likability was an asset for Mr. Biden during the campaign, and most still like the way he handles himself personally. It outpaces his overall approvals today. A quarter of those who disapprove of the job he’s doing say they like him personally. People who hold these views are more likely to identify as independent than with either of the two parties.

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More broadly, there is little in the way of buyers’ remorse among those who backed Mr. Biden for president. About nine in 10 Biden voters still feel better about having him as president than Trump; this includes a large majority of independents who voted for Mr. Biden.

Even among the Biden voters who feel “disappointed” or “frustrated” about his presidency right now, most feel better about having him in office than they felt about his predecessor.

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When people don’t think Mr. Biden is focusing on things they care about, they’re more likely to feel he doesn’t care about them. Fewer Americans now think the president cares about their needs and problems than they did last March.

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This CBS News/YouGov survey was conducted with a nationally representative sample of 2,094 U.S. adult residents interviewed between January 12-14, 2022. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the U.S. Census American Community Survey and Current Population Survey, as well as to 2020 presidential vote. The margin of error is ±2.5 points.

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