But there’s an important bit of context undergirding that result. As The Post’s Dan Balz, Scott Clement and Emily Guskin write:
… 78 percent of Republicans say they strongly disapprove of the way Biden has handled his job, which is slightly higher than the 72 percent of Democrats who strongly disapproved of Trump at the same point in 2017, and also far higher than the 43 percent of Republicans who strongly disapproved of President Barack Obama’s performance in April 2009. At no point during Obama’s first three years in office did strong disapproval among Republicans reach its current level.
Biden has been president for about 100 days, and Republicans already dislike him more than they did Barack Obama. During his presidency, of course, Obama was seeing historic opposition. Yet here’s Biden, beating him on that metric right out of the gates.
At the same time, Biden’s approval from Democrats is near the level that Obama enjoyed at the beginning of his first term in office, including two-thirds of Democrats who strongly approve of his performance. The effect of that combination is that the gap between the parties in views of the two presidents is wider for Biden than for Obama. In April 2009, Post-ABC News polling had a 57-point gap between the two parties in approval of Obama. Now, that gap is 77 points.
This is in part a function of 2009 being the last year in which presidential approval ratings worked the way they had historically. In Gallup’s polling, 2009 was the last year in which the opposing party had an average approval of the president that exceeded 20 percent. Before the second term of George W. Bush, there had been only seven years since 1946 in which the average approval rating from the party opposing a president was under 20 percent. Since 2009, it has happened every year.
The gap in average annual ratings between the president’s party and the opposition is now consistently over 70 percentage points. (The gap is visualized below by the height of the colored bars.) During George W. Bush’s presidency, the gap was an average of 62 percentage points. During Obama’s, it was 72 points. During Trump’s, 80 points. This year for Biden, it’s 85 points.
Measuring presidential approval ratings used to be like taking the country’s temperature. Now it’s more often like the recent effort to finalize the true height of Mount Everest: refining a calculation that tends not to vary much.
A large part of this is that — like Everest — things don’t move very much. Within both the president’s and the opposing party, approval ratings used to move up and down more regularly. Now, partisan approval tends to move within much narrower ranges. You can see that pattern start to emerge in the presidency of Bill Clinton, with partisan views of the president rarely overlapping. By Obama, the range of approval ratings he saw from Democrats and Republicans barely moved from late 2009 forward. For Trump, both parties were rooted firmly in place.
One more way of looking at it is how average annual ratings evolved over the course of recent presidents’ terms. In Ronald Reagan’s first term, approval from Republicans (his party) were just over 75 percent; the rating from Democrats was around 25 percent. By George W. Bush’s second term, Democratic approval was well under 25 percent. Opposition approval ratings continued to head lower from there.
Part of this is a function of the decline in partisan identification over time. At the start of George W. Bush’s second term in office, 27 percent of Americans identified as independents. In Gallup’s most recent measure, 41 percent did. Since the figures above only include partisans, if more-moderate members of parties were to shift to an independent identification, we would expect partisan sentiment to be more homogeneous.
Part of it, too, is increased partisanship. The 2020 election saw fewer split-ticket House races — meaning voters in an area supporting a House candidate of one party and the president of the other — than any election in decades. One way of looking at that: There’s less deviation within parties from the party line.
There have been few presidencies more replete with controversy than Donald Trump’s. A statistician from 1970, though, would look at his approval ratings and get no sense of that being the case. Instead, the sense one might get is of a remarkably stable presidency. After all, nothing shifted public views of his tenure.
One has to wonder, then, how useful presidential approval ratings are. If approval ratings at this point mostly just measure party loyalty — or, really, track largely with changes in how independents view the president — what do we learn by measuring it? What does it mean that Biden’s approval is just over 50 percent or that Republicans broadly dislike him? This tells us a lot about current politics, but not much about the current president.
This may change. It’s a pattern that’s less than 20 years old, after all, and it’s possible that the partisan firmament might shake loose.
Or it may continue the case that approval rating measures tell us little more than we already know: Partisans strongly dislike the opposing party, and that influences views of the presidency. Maybe Everest is a few inches taller than we thought, but the fundamental issue hasn’t changed: It is massive and unmoving.