WASHINGTON -- As President Joe Biden and Democrats try to get a roughly $2 trillion package over the finish line, a new poll shows that fewer than half of Americans approve of how they have handled the spending bill. And many say they know little to nothing about it.
It’s a troubling sign for a party that hopes to make the social spending investments the hallmark of their midterm election campaigns next year.
The new poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds that 36% of Americans say they approve of Biden’s handling of the negotiations over the bill, while 41% disapprove and 23% say they neither approve nor disapprove. Fewer than half say they know a lot or some about the proposals.
“I don't place all the blame on him, but I think that, as a president, as a commander-in-chief, I think he could be doing a lot more to get people on board with his plan," said Gary Hines, 65, a Democratic voter from Philadelphia who emphasized he supports the various elements of Biden's plan, from expanding the number of people with health insurance, to making child care more affordable, to doing more to curb climate change.
The findings come at a pivotal moment for Biden and his party. Compared with his spending bill efforts, Americans are more positive about his job performance overall, with 48% approving. Still, 51% disapprove. That split is similar to last month but a notable slump from earlier this year.
The new poll also gives Biden his first underwater approval rating for his handling of the economy and shows increasing pessimism about the direction of the country.
Still, the poll shows ratings of Republicans’ role in the situation are even worse. Just 18% percent approve of how Republicans in Congress are handling negotiations over the spending package, while 49% disapprove. Republicans, who have been shut out from the talks over the bill, are expected to overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, oppose the Democratic package.
Democrats have pared back Biden's plans at the insistence of Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Still, they are struggling to reach agreement on a smaller framework of priorities and a means to pay for them.
Kristopher Bennefield, 39, of San Augustine, Texas, voiced frustration with Democrats “being so indecisive among themselves." And he said Biden bears responsibility, because “if he can’t get his own party to do anything, how can he really do anything else?”
“He has great ideas, but he’s having poor follow-through,” said Bennefield, who described himself as an independent.
Meanwhile, some Americans skeptical of the effort remain so.
“I don't think we can afford it," said Greg Holman, 59, of Grants Pass, Ore., who is hoping for what he described as a “red wave" in next year's mid-term elections.
“It's ridiculous to turn the country into a socialist nation where the government is doing everything for the people," said James Solar, 78, of Houston. “The point is, these programs are not free."
Despite concerns about the progress being made on the spending package, or the lack thereof, most Americans support several of the broad priorities of the plan. The poll shows majorities say funding for health care and education programs should be high priorities, and close to half say the same about programs that address climate change.
Fewer say funding for child care (40%) or paid family leave (27%) should be high priorities, but majorities say they should at least be moderate priorities.
Biden has originally called for up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, allowing workers to get their wages partially replaced in the event of a new child or to care for a seriously ill loved one. But the paid leave program is at risk of being dropped from the bill amid pressure from Manchin and others to reduce the bill's overall price tag.
Ryan Guyer, 40, of Flagstaff, Ariz., views health care, child care and climate change as high priorities. He said he’s not against paid family leave and believes it can provide important dividends. Still, he called it a moderate priority because most people have gotten by for a long time without it and he wonders if it “can be kicked down the road again.”
As negotiations drag on, Biden's standing with the public has declined, but other factors may also play a role, from the military's difficult withdrawal from Afghanistan to rising prices for groceries, gas and other basics.
For the first time in AP-NORC polling, Biden also earns negative marks for his handling of the economy, with 58% disapproving and 41% approving. That’s even more negative than last month, when Americans were closely divided. In March, 60% approved of Biden on the economy.
Only about a third of Americans say the nation is headed in the right direction, similar to last month, but a decline from earlier this year. When Biden took office and in the early months of his presidency, roughly half said the nation was on the right track.
And just 26% think the way things are going in the country will improve in the next year, down from 43% in February. Now, 48% say things will worsen in the year ahead.
Guyer, a Democrat, believes the country is on the right track.
“The thing I’m most concerned about is the polarization of our country, but I think a lot of the pandemic issues over the last year, including the supply chains, including people getting back to work, I think those are going in the right direction,” Guyer said.
The AP-NORC poll of 1,083 adults was conducted Oct. 21-25 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4 percentage points.