The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Post-ABC poll finds a deeply pessimistic nation, worried about the economy and Biden’s leadership

The president’s approval rating hits a new low, as voters indicate more trust in Republicans than Democrats as they approach November’s midterm elections

President Biden speaks about Ukraine in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on Feb. 18. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Biden will deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday to a deeply pessimistic nation, one that largely sees the economy worsening under his watch, disapproves of his leadership on key issues and currently prefers that Republicans control Congress after the November elections, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Biden will be dealing with multiple problems when he speaks to the nation in prime time from the House chamber. Russian troops have invaded Ukraine, disrupting the stability of Europe and challenging the Western alliance. The sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and its allies could hike oil prices even as the country continues to labor under inflationary costs. Meanwhile, Biden faces the fallout from remaining pieces of a domestic agenda that have been stalled for months.

The poll finds Biden’s presidential approval rating at a new low, with 37 percent saying they approve of the job he is doing and 55 percent saying they disapprove. Overall, 44 percent say they strongly disapprove. Predictably, Republicans overwhelmingly disapprove (86 percent) of his job performance, but most independents (61 percent) also rate him negatively. Among Democrats, 77 percent give Biden positive marks.

Read full Post-ABC poll results

Asked whether they would prefer the next Congress to be in the hands of Republicans acting as a check against the president or in Democratic hands to support Biden’s priorities, 50 percent of adults say they would rather have Republicans in charge on Capitol Hill while 40 percent prefer the Democrats.

On the question of how they would vote in House races if the election were held today, 49 percent of registered voters say they would support the Republican candidate while 42 percent say they would vote for the Democratic candidate. For comparison, just ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, which saw Democrats score big gains and capture control of the House, it was Democrats who enjoyed a seven-point advantage on this same question.

Congressional Republicans have blamed President Biden’s actions and “weakness” for leaving an opening for Russia to attack Ukraine. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

The Russian invasion has changed the calculus at the beginning of this election year, though given that the fighting in Ukraine is still in the early stages and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate objectives are not fully known, it is too early to assess what the impact might be on voters’ attitudes toward the president and his party.

The early assessments are contradictory, with a big and bipartisan majority approving of the sanctions imposed on the Russians but with a 47 percent plurality also saying they disapprove of the way Biden has managed the crisis to date. So far, the international crisis has not given Biden any boost, as sometimes happens in such moments. The survey was mostly completed before the full invasion began and the United States and others responded with sanctions.

View detailed crosstabs here.

Americans rate Biden negatively on other big issues beyond leadership on the Ukraine crisis. Biden’s approval rating on his handling of the economy now stands at 37 percent compared with 58 percent who disapprove. That is slightly worse than in a November poll, but the differences are not statistically significant.

On his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, 44 percent approve while 50 percent disapprove. Biden’s numbers on the pandemic have been in a steady slide since last summer, when about 6 in 10 said they approved of the job he was doing. Every Post-ABC poll since has seen that support decline a little further even as the number of covid cases has dropped sharply and a general easing of mask mandates and other restrictions is underway in many parts of the country.

The president appears to be weighed down by Americans’ sour assessment of the economy. Today, 75 percent of Americans rate the economy negatively, up from 70 percent in November. That represents the worst rating since 2013 in Post-ABC polls. In all, 39 percent say the economy is in “poor” shape, the highest number since 2012, though little changed from the 38 percent who said the same in November.

By a wide margin, Americans say the economy has gotten worse since Biden took office, with 54 percent saying so compared with 17 percent who say the economy has gotten better and 27 percent who say it has remained about the same as it was before he was sworn in 13 months ago.

During Biden’s first year as president, the unemployment rate has dropped to 4 percent and the economy added about 6 million new jobs. But the inflation rate has hit a 40-year high, with gasoline and grocery prices hitting the pocketbooks of American families.

Almost 6 in 10 Americans say inflation has caused hardships for themselves or members of their household, with 3 in 10 saying those hardships have been serious. Among those with incomes below $50,000, the percentage who say they have suffered serious hardship is even higher, at 43 percent.

More than one-third of Americans say they are not as well off financially as they were before Biden became president, while almost half of all adults say they are in about the same place financially as they were when Biden came into office. One in 6 say they are better off.

Americans are split almost evenly on whether Biden is to blame for the current inflation rates, with 50 percent saying he bears a “good deal” or a “great amount” of the blame and 48 percent saying he bears “not much” or no blame “at all.” Those views break largely along party lines.

They assess greater culpability for the rise in prices on big companies seeking higher profits and on the economic disruptions caused by the pandemic, which has interrupted the supply chain. More than two in three — including majorities among all partisan groups — say corporations trying to increase their profits are to blame for higher inflation rates and more than 7 in 10 cite disruptions from the pandemic as the cause.

An underlying weakness affecting perceptions of Biden’s performance in office is the degree to which people have doubts about his personal capacities. On the question of whether he is a strong leader, 59 percent say no and 36 percent say yes — closely aligned with his overall approval rating. Among independents, 65 percent say he is not strong.

On an even more personal question, 54 percent say they do not think Biden has the mental sharpness it takes to serve as president, while 40 percent say he does. The last time this was asked in a Post-ABC poll was in May 2020. At that time, the findings were roughly reversed: 51 percent said candidate Biden possessed the mental sharpness needed to be president compared with 43 percent who said he did not.

Not surprisingly, Republicans and Democrats have wholly opposite views on this question. Among independents, a critical group in the upcoming election, 59 percent offer a negative assessment of the president’s mental sharpness, a rise of 13 points since May 2020.

Interest in the November election, meantime, appears relatively high for contests that historically produce lower turnout than in presidential years. Today, 67 percent of adults and 75 percent of registered voters say they are certain to vote. That is slightly higher than at the start of 2018, when midterm turnout surged to the highest in a century. At this early stage, 82 percent of voters who support Republicans for Congress say they are certain to vote, compared with 74 percent of voters who support Democrats.

The current Post-ABC poll is the second in a row that has shown an increase in the percentage of people who identify as either Republicans or independents who lean Republican. The latest poll finds 46 percent of adults identify or lean Republican, up from 41 percent last June and 40 percent last April. The percentage identifying as Democrats has slipped from 48 percent last April to 43 percent this month. This is in line with what Gallup polls have found in their party identification tracking: a marked shift toward Republicans from the beginning of 2021 to the end of the year.

On issues, the public offers differing assessments of which party is most trusted as the midterm elections approach. Republicans have a big advantage on the economy, with 54 percent of adults saying they trust the GOP and 35 percent saying they trust the Democrats, tying Republicans’ record 19-point advantage on this issue in 1990. Meanwhile, Democrats have a narrower advantage on the pandemic, 43 percent to 37 percent.

The public is closely divided on whom they trust on education, which has become a more contentious issue over the past year due to everything from mask mandates and remote learning to parental involvement and curriculum issues, especially the teaching of America’s racial history.

Historically, Democrats have held the advantage on the issue of education, but Republicans have signaled that they will seek to make it a top issue in November and that they will try to put the Democrats on the defensive. Today, the poll finds that 44 percent say they trust Democrats more to deal with these issues compared with 41 percent who trust Republicans. In 2006, 56 percent trusted Democrats more. From 1990-2006, Democrats averaged a 13-point advantage in trust to handle education.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted Feb. 20 through 24 among a random national sample of 1,011 adults, reached on cellphones and landlines. The margin of error is plus or minus four percentage points for overall results and among the sample of 904 registered voters.

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