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In divided nation, Americans do agree on this: Biden should talk about economy — CBS News poll

The state of our union is … ? 

We asked people to describe it, and received some dour assessments: they picked "divided" most of all, followed by "declining" and "weak." Few picked adjectives "strong," or — amid tough economic ratings — "prospering." 

These aren't just one-sided partisan points. Partisans share the sense of division and decline more than prosperity. It is in part a function of such dire views of the economy and inflation right now.

In all, it's a tough environment for a president addressing Congress and the nation.


What do people want to hear tonight?

Little surprise that it's the economy and inflation. Lowering the latter is a high priority for so many. Beyond those two issues, immigration is especially important to Republicans who plan to watch, while Democrats are more interested in hearing about addressing racism and climate change. 


This desire comes as most Americans still rate the economy as bad. President Biden is making this speech amid a stretch of low economy ratings that the nation has not voiced since recovering from the Great Recession. To this point in his term, he has not seen a majority of Americans say the economy is good. That did happen for President Barack Obama in his second term, and then consistently under former President Donald Trump until the pandemic. 

But Mr. Biden will be facing a friendly television audience: Democrats are far more likely to say they'll watch. Most who say they're very likely to watch already approve of his job performance. 

This is typical for recent presidents. It was the reverse when President Trump was in office. Partisans, whether Democrat or Republican, are typically more likely to watch speeches by a president from their own party these days, while opponents often avoid them.  


The Biden impact — and his challenges tonight

As with any president, an address to Congress is a chance to make a case for successes, but it appears Mr. Biden has some convincing to do in that regard:

  • Most Americans feel Mr. Biden's policies are making the economy, and specifically gas prices and inflation, worse rather than better
  • When we look at party breaks on this, we'd expect political opponents to level these kinds of critiques, and indeed, Republicans do — but the tougher challenge for Mr. Biden is that most independents see negative impact from his actions on these issues as well.

But efforts against COVID get much better evaluations

Efforts against COVID have hit a record-high "good" rating — and here, Mr. Biden's policies do get credited as a net-positive effect.


That's not insignificant, given it helped get him elected in the first place. But in politics, mitigating a problem can often mean it moves off the public's radar screen, and right now, inflation is what people prioritize.

For larger context, the public often reasons these kinds of evaluations out of perceived results, so some of this would be driven by policy preference, but also probably a function of their continuing view that the economy is bad and that things with the pandemic have improved.

Around the world

On the foreign policy front, there's substantial majority approval for sending both aid and weapons to Ukraine, and for keeping economic sanctions on Russia, all of which the administration has advanced. 

Handling the situation is among Mr. Biden's relatively better approval ratings — though Republicans still don't give him personal approval for it, even as they back these particular actions in aiding Ukraine. 


But Mr. Biden's ratings for handling issues with China are lower.


More broadly, he's also seen (especially by Republicans) as making U.S. standing in the world worse rather than better.


Overall, Mr. Biden's specific ratings on descriptors like "competence" remain below 50%, where they've been since 2021.


Party stances

With a divided Congress, what do people think of the parties' stances? A few items stand out most positively for each side, in that people say they agree more than disagree with the party's stance. For the Democrats, that's Social Security and climate change. For the Republicans, that's economic policy and immigration policy. It has some echoes of the 2022 campaign, when Republicans also had a perceived advantage on the economy.


Meanwhile, immigration policy gets the Democrats their biggest negative gap of the issues tested, with more saying they disagree than agree. And the Republicans' perceived stance on LGBTQ issues gets the party its biggest net-negative ratio, with almost twice as many disagreeing than agreeing

Looking ahead: Democracy and the future

As important as the economy is — and was —  the election that produced this Congress hinged on much more. 

  • People still think democracy and the rule of law in the U.S. is threatened. (That may go hand in hand with the tough overall assessments of the nation.) 


Presidents often like to say America's best days are ahead. 

It turns out that sentiment is rare today among people of his generation; older people tend to think the nation's best days are behind it.

But younger people are more positive, on balance, with most feeling either that right now is best, or the future holds better.


This CBS News/YouGov survey was conducted with a nationally representative sample of 2,030 U.S. adult residents interviewed between February 1-4, 2023. 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 the 2020 presidential vote. The margin of error is ±3.0 points.


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