While some observers claim that President Biden will offer Americans a “return to normalcy” after four years of now-former President Trump in the White House, it’s difficult to know at this point which aspects of the political landscape may be changed forever. For instance, it’s unclear whether Biden will enjoy a “honeymoon,” the first few months in office when new presidents typically garner high marks for their job performance.
Before Trump, most presidents generally received positive marks in their first six months — and some ratings were downright sterling, as the table below shows.
|Average over first six months of first term|
|2000||George W. Bush||53.9||28.1||+25.7|
|1988||George H.W. Bush||62.3||16.1||+46.2|
Yet with Trump, public attitudes were pretty negative from the start. On the one hand, that could be unique to him since he was a historically unpopular presidential candidate, but on the other hand, there were signs that presidential honeymoon periods were shrinking even before him. So, given how polarized our politics currently are, it’s quite possible that Biden won’t enjoy much of a honeymoon.
“One of the things that’s happened is that old-fashioned ‘let’s give the guy a chance’ has kind of evaporated,” said Jeffrey Cohen, a political scientist at Fordham University who studies public opinion and the presidency. “Instead, people don’t break out of their voting patterns. The divisiveness that you see in election campaigns stays.” Casey Dominguez, a political scientist at the University of San Diego who studies presidential honeymoon periods agrees, citing the media as a major driving force in this: “Today, we have a news media environment where there are sources of information that are just never going to be favorable to Biden.”
Most modern presidents have entered the White House with some sort of political mandate — that is, they’ve normally enjoyed at least some upbeat media coverage and positive public attitudes during their first few months in office. “There’s this sort of positive feedback loop of news and approval ratings, and people giving the new president a chance, that has traditionally given presidents a little window of time in which to get some things done,” said Dominguez.
But that window seems to be closing. Take the last four presidents since the 1990s. Only Barack Obama had an average approval rating of at least 60 percent in the first six months of his presidency. Granted, Trump’s approval rating was especially low, but both George W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s were only in the low 50s — far lower than the approval ratings of their predecessors, which points to an overall lower ceiling of support for new presidents in our more polarized era.
That doesn’t mean presidents can’t still generate boons in support later on, though. For instance, Clinton’s approval rating later topped 60 percent for long periods of his presidency, thanks to a surging economy.1 And Bush’s approval skyrocketed to nearly 90 percent in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But Cohen told me he still thinks the days of the vibrant presidential honeymoon period are largely over. It’s true, he said, that Biden is entering the White House during a time of crisis, similar to what Obama encountered in 2009 with the Great Recession, but Cohen still didn’t think Biden would have the same success as Obama did then in attracting Republican support.2 (Obama’s history-making status as the first Black president may have helped him to some extent, too.) That’s because the COVID-19 pandemic is so heavily politicized. “You would think that [with] a public health crisis, with a new president, that he would just be able to walk into the office and rally everybody behind him,” said Cohen. “I just don’t think that that’s going to happen because the COVID virus was one of the big themes of the election campaign.” And especially given voters’ tendency to filter economic conditions through a partisan lens, Cohen thinks many Republicans will view the economy poorly under Biden even if things improve, just as many Democrats did during Trump’s tenure prior to the coronavirus, when the economy was still strong.
This is not to say that Biden will start out with a lower approval rating than Trump, however. Ahead of Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, for instance, he had a favorability rating in the low 50s, according to a simple average of recent polls, which is roughly 9 percentage points higher than where Trump started four years ago. To be sure, favorability ratings and approval ratings are not the same thing — the former measures how well liked presidents are, the latter how well they’re doing their job — but the two ratings often move in similar directions. Take Trump as an example again: He also had a favorability rating in the low 40s when he took office and throughout most of his first six months, and this was very close to his approval rating over the same period.
Nevertheless, if Biden’s approval rating is only in the low 50s, that isn’t much of a honeymoon. It is, of course, hard to know yet how things will go for the new president in the coming weeks and months. The divisions in the country may make a honeymoon period unlikely. But it’s also very much still in Biden’s and his administration’s control as to whether his approval rating gets a boost — or dips. “What the president actually does can affect the news coverage of his administration,” said Dominguez. And considering the test Biden faces in managing the COVID-19 pandemic — including the vaccine rollout — he has a chance to win at least a modicum of additional support if he handles the crisis with aplomb. But such an opportunity also carries risk should he struggle to exhibit the leadership necessary to handle these challenges.