There is no more pressing issue for the U.S. — or the world — right now than the COVID-19 pandemic.
And politically, how President Biden is perceived to be handling it over the next year or so could define his presidency and his chances for reelection, if he runs.
So far, he's off to a good start, according to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey, out Thursday. Sixty-two percent of Americans approve of how Biden is handling the pandemic.
The results come as Biden prepares Thursday to sign into law his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill and then address the nation Thursday night. Democrats passed the measure through a legislative maneuver that required only majority support, because all Republicans opposed the bill in both the House and Senate.
"There's a sense of progress," noted Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the poll. "We may not be there, but we may be getting closer to getting out from under [the pandemic]. ... There are Trump people, who obviously didn't vote for [Biden], but have come on board because of COVID."
In fact, 30% of Republicans and 22% of Trump supporters say they approve of Biden's handling of the pandemic.
The survey of 1,227 adults was conducted March 3 through Monday. Respondents were contacted on mobile and landline phones by callers who conducted interviews live in English and Spanish. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. In other words, results could be 3.4 percentage points lower or higher than the result.
The White House says Biden is set to promote the passing of the legislation in a way that former President Barack Obama never did with the 2009 Recovery Act. Many Democrats believe that Obama's not touting the bill more publicly and forcefully hurt the perception of the bill, didn't give Obama enough credit for helping the country out of the Great Recession and allowed Republicans to dictate the narrative around it.
Conservatives say Biden's measure is bloated and not as targeted to coronavirus relief as it should have been. Their opposition may be part of an effort to turn around the widely positive perception of the legislation.
Consider that in this new survey, just a third of Americans say the bill goes too far, while most respondents say it is about right (37%) or doesn't go far enough (21%).
Surveys showing strong approval of the legislation are why the White House and Democrats have had such a confident stance in doing an end run around the Senate filibuster, which requires 60 votes for most legislation to advance to a floor vote.
The question for Biden is: What's next and how does he achieve it? He and Democrats won't be able to pass everything through budget reconciliation, the process used to pass the COVID-19 relief bill in the Senate.
And while about half of Americans view him positively — his job approval rating is at 49%, which is higher than former President Donald Trump's ever was — that's not extraordinarily high, and it's lower than approval for the coronavirus bill. It signals that everything legislatively after this is likely going to be tougher, especially with the 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster still in effect for most legislation.
The next six months or so are going to be critical politically for the relief bill to start showing benefits for the economy.
"There's a double-digit group that's unsure and waiting," said Barbara Carvalho, director of the Marist Poll, referring to the 10% of respondents who say they are unsure of the job Biden is doing overall and the 13% who didn't give an opinion of how Biden is doing on the economy. "That's where he's going to make or break his presidency — with people who are still on the fence."
The way forward is also complicated by the fact that Americans, in general, still value compromise. In this survey, two-thirds of Americans said that it is more important for Biden to compromise with Congress to find solutions rather than stick to his position on issues, even if doing so means gridlock. Of course, people say they want compromise but mostly mean they want others to come to their position.
That said, Biden and Democrats retain some advantage over Republicans when it comes to their brands. Forty-one percent of voters approve of the job Democrats are doing in Congress, a fairly mediocre share. But it's higher than the 28% approval that congressional Republicans are receiving for the job they're doing.
Vaccination is a top priority, as more Americans say they will get the shot
The coronavirus has touched a lot of American lives. In the survey, three-quarters say they know someone who has gotten sick from the virus, and 36% say they know someone who has died from it.
In dealing with the pandemic, Americans generally agree that vaccine distribution is the top priority, but there is a sharp split along party lines. Overall, 43% say vaccine distribution is most important, followed by reopening schools, financial relief to small businesses, direct payments to individuals and extending unemployment benefits.
For Democrats and independents, vaccine distribution is the top priority, but for Republicans, it's reopening schools, followed by vaccines.
More Americans are getting vaccinated: About 1 in 5 survey respondents say they have gotten at least one shot, and 10% of Americans are now fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In this survey, two-thirds of Americans say they either have gotten the vaccine or will get it. Only 30% now say they won't, which continues a downward trend since September of last year, when 44% said they would not get it.
Republican men and Trump supporters remain the most against getting a vaccine. But a significant 37% of Latinos and those under 45 also say they will not get the shot.
Latinos and those under 45 are also the most likely groups to say they have lost a job or income as a result of the pandemic (both 44%). Latinos were also among the groups most likely to say they personally know someone who died from the virus (44%).
Just a quarter of Black Americans say they won't get a vaccine, about the same as whites.
Most Americans say they think the vaccine rollout is going about as they expected, while 1 in 5 says it's going better than expected. Just 18% say it's going worse than expected.
When it comes to getting a shot, about a third say it hasn't been very difficult for themselves or someone they know who is eligible, while just 29% say it has been difficult. Another third say they haven't tried to get an appointment.
The balancing act of the virus and economy
A third of Americans say they or someone in their household has lost a job or income as a result of the pandemic.
A slight majority of Americans (51%) say it's more important that their state prioritize controlling the spread of the coronavirus even if it hurts the economy, as opposed to prioritizing restarting the economy even if it hurts efforts to control the spread of the virus.
There's a sharp partisan split, however: Three-quarters of Democrats think it's better to prioritize stopping the spread of the virus, while three-quarters of Republicans say the economy should be the priority. Independents are split.
Biden gets just 46% job approval on the economy, and independents are split on what they think of his approach to it.
So he has to hope that the economy improves over the next year to help that number. If not, that figure could decline and affect Democrats' chances in the 2022 and 2024 elections.
"He needs to try and convert some of the goodwill he's building on handling the virus to handling the economy," Marist's Miringoff said. "That was always Trump's stronger suit during the campaign, and it's still a vulnerability that Biden has."