Why Joe Biden's popularity baffles the media and angers the opposition

Biden's first 100 days in office look to be a surprise to many

By Heather Digby Parton


Published April 26, 2021 9:41AM (EDT)

Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

I'm sure you all remember the endless media forays into so-called Trump country after the 2016 election to find out what "the country" was really thinking. The media were fascinated by the fact that Donald Trump managed to pull off his narrow electoral win in places none of them had ever been so they sent out intrepid reporters to rural towns and small cities in the rust belt to find out what Real Americans™️ were thinking. And they went back every few months for years to take the temperature of these folks who always said the same thing: they just loved Trump and supported him no matter what. Trump's supporters believed with all their hearts that everything the press reported about him was a lie and the whole country was really with them if only the media would tell the truth about it. After all, just about everyone they knew and everyone on Facebook were in total agreement. 

So sure, the media was fascinated by this phenomenon and that's understandable to some extent. It was quite weird. But one might have thought it would be at least somewhat interesting to check in with the other side to see what they were thinking in the months after the recent election. It was quite eventful, after all. Yet you probably won't be surprised to learn that there haven't been many forays into the same states that Biden narrowly won. When NBC News did take a trip into the wilds of Pennsylvania recently to see how Biden voters are faring, they found that rather than the worshipful adoration of the Trump voters, most Biden voters have a very different reaction:

Robin Westcott remembers her joy when Joe Biden was elected last fall. Not only had Biden won with a narrow victory in Pennsylvania, but he also had carried Erie County, where Westcott has lived for most of her 62 years. Once reliably Democratic in presidential elections, the voters here in 2016 broke for Donald Trump — the first time they favored a Republican White House hopeful since Ronald Reagan in 1984. The county, which pokes out from the northwesternmost corner of the state and into Lake Erie, became something of a Rorschach test for the Rust Belt...

Nearly 100 days into the Biden presidency, voters who backed him in this political battleground-within-a battleground say they feel a sense of relief.

Or, as one man told NBC News pollsters last week:

"I don't have to think about what Joe Biden is doing every day," said a North Carolina man who voted for Biden. "The best thing about Joe Biden is I don't have to think about Joe Biden."

In line with those anecdotal sentiments, a spate of public polls was released this past weekend in the run-up to Biden's 100-day mark, and they all show Biden to have an approval rating ranging from 52% in the ABC poll to 58% in the CBS poll. There is widespread approval for his COVID response, his infrastructure policy and the economy. Unsurprisingly, Biden does poorly on immigration and guns, both of which are intractable issues that have critics among both Democrats and Republicans. And he hasn't managed to unify the country which is, of course, something he should have been able to do with a flick of his wrist — or maybe a magic wand?

All in all, Biden is doing well, particularly considering that he was given almost no transition time to prepare and had to hit the ground running to deal with a historic catastrophe that killed over half a million people and isn't over yet. His handling of this issue, about which the vast majority approve, is an impressive accomplishment considering how badly the previous administration handled the crisis and the ongoing lack of cooperation from red-state governments.

One of the more disturbing results in these polls is the fact that so many Republican voters are still resisting the vaccine and frankly, don't seem to be willing to reconsider. If they don't, the U.S. is going to have a much more difficult time getting the caseload down to an acceptable level which could, perversely, affect the public's opinion of the rollout. The same dynamic that blames Biden for the GOP's refusal to cooperate in Congress could be at work here, but with much more lethal consequences.

That dynamic should also be informing the media's understanding of why Biden is not able to achieve the kind of approval rating that the presidents before Donald Trump were able to achieve in their first 100 days. Unfortunately, it isn't. ABC's headline, for instance, was:

Biden's 100 days: Low-end approval, yet strong marks on pandemic response. His April approval is lower than most of his predecessors, save Trump and Ford.

Newsweek's headline was similar: "Joe Biden Approval Rating Beats Only Donald Trump and Gerald Ford's 100-Day Score: Poll"

What a bizarre way of spinning it after four years of a president who could never get above 45% (and even that was very rare.) It shouldn't have to be said that none of the previous presidents came into office in the middle of a global pandemic with their predecessor spreading a Big Lie that the election was stolen and inciting an insurrection just days before the inauguration. Neither did any of those presidents have to deal with a level of political polarization not seen since the civil war, thanks to the radical partisanship of the opposition. I'd say that having a 53% approval rating under those circumstances is something of a miracle. Apparently, we are just going to pretend that Donald Trump was an anomaly and that nothing he did had any serious effect on the political system that might not make this administration directly comparable to what came before.

Still, there is some good news in all this. The media can pretend that Joe Biden's approval rating is a terrible disaster all they want. But nothing will make it as bad as Donald Trump's, which is currently at 32% in the NBC poll. That's a drop of 8 points since January, which is unusual because ex-presidents usually gain back some popularity after they leave office. Yet he will maintain control of the party with the supporters he has. And that's very bad. According to the CBS poll:

Republicans still do not say Biden was the legitimate winner of the election, and six in 10 of former President Trump's voters now want to see their congressional representatives oppose Biden at every turn. This isn't just politics. That particular group who wants opposition — while constituting a minority of Americans — also has very different views on issues from most Democrats, moderates and independents as well. For instance, most of them think efforts at racial equality are making American society worse; they say illegal immigration should be the top priority, as opposed to the pandemic or even the economy.

That isn't enough people to win elections legitimately. But Republican officials are happy to do whatever it takes to please them since they do represent the base of the party. Joe Biden could have a 70% approval rating and it wouldn't reduce their power. It would be nice if the media spin didn't obscure that fact.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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