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Biden takes the helm of a polarized, pessimistic and pained nation

President-elect Joe Biden
Posted at 9:24 AM, Jan 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-19 10:24:50-05

(NBC) - As Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. takes the oath of office to become the country’s 46th president on Wednesday, he confronts an increasingly polarized, pessimistic and pained nation, according to new numbers from the latest national NBC News poll.

More than seven-in-10 voters believe the country is on the wrong track, another seven-in-10 think the next four years will remain politically divided, and a majority say they are mainly worried and pessimistic about the nation’s future.

Overall, voters give Biden positive marks for his handling of a transition rocked by an outgoing president who refused to concede his defeat and who falsely claimed widespread fraud and voting irregularities; by a violent attack at the U.S. Capitol in protest of the election results; by an unprecedented second impeachment of his predecessor; and by more than 170,000 Americans killed by the coronavirus pandemic since Election Day.

But a majority of all voters don’t have high confidence in Biden’s goals, policies and personal characteristics, and a plurality of Republicans aren’t inclined to compromise with the incoming Democratic president.

“Donald Trump leaves to Joe Biden a country divided, off on the wrong track, and also with a new sense that the future may not be as bright as we thought,” said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research Associates, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies.

“This is the America that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris inherit,” Horwitt added.

McInturff, the GOP pollster, notes that Biden’s favorability rating has remained virtually unchanged since the campaign, and that he doesn’t appear to have the same honeymoon with the American public that other modern presidents – outside of Donald Trump – have enjoyed at the beginning of their presidencies.

“I don’t sense in this data much of an opening for Biden for the goodwill that we wanted our presidents to have,” McInturff said.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who also worked on this poll, puts the new president’s challenge this way: “Biden is on a very thin balance beam.”

“Downhill,” “Frightened,” “Civil war”

According to the poll, 73 percent of voters say the country is on the wrong track, compared with 21 percent who say it’s headed in the right direction.

That wrong track number is up 13 percentage points from where it was in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll right before the election, and it’s the highest percentage on this question since July 2016.

An equal 73 percent believe the nation will remain divided over the next four years, versus 24 percent who think the country will be able to unite.

And by a 53 percent-to-44 percent margin, voters say they’re mainly worried and pessimistic about the nation’s future than they are hopeful and optimistic – the first time more respondents have answered worried/pessimistic on this question that dates back to 1998.

When voters were asked to describe where America is headed in the next year, some of their replies included:

"Downhill. Well, I don't think we are going the right direction yet," said one Democratic respondent.

"Frightened. Extremely sickened. Un-united," said another Democrat.

"Civil war,“ added a Republican respondent.

60 percent approve of Biden’s handling of the transition

The NBC News poll shows 60 percent of voters approving of Biden’s handling of the transition and his preparations for becoming president, versus 32 percent who disapprove.

Those numbers are higher than Trump’s before he took office (44 percent approve, 52 percent disapprove), but are lower than Barack Obama’s (71 percent approve, 14 percent disapprove)

The poll also finds a majority of voters – 55 percent – believing Biden will return the country to a more typical way past presidents have governed the country.

But only 37 percent express high confidence that the incoming president has the right set of goals and policies, and just 43 percent have high confidence that Biden has the right set of personal characteristics to be president.

“Unlike the hardened attitudes toward Donald Trump, views about Joe Biden appear softer and not yet fully formed,” said Horwitt, the Democratic pollster.

And Biden is set to face a Republican Party where more GOP voters want congressional Republicans to stick to their positions (48 percent) than to make compromises to achieve consensus (40 percent).

That’s in contrast to Democratic attitudes as Trump was about to enter the Oval Office in 2017, with more Democrats wanting compromise (59 percent) than sticking to their positions (33 percent).

Biden gets high marks on experience, likability; low marks on issue positions

Finally, the NBC News poll finds Biden getting the highest marks from voters on being knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the presidency (55 percent give him a “4” or a “5” on a 5-point scale), as well as being easygoing and likeable (53 percent).

Forty-seven percent give Biden high marks for having the ability to handle a crisis, and 45 percent give him high marks for having high personal and ethical standards.

But his lowest marks come on the economy (39 percent give Biden a “4” or “5”) and on sharing your positions on the issues (38 percent).

The NBC News poll was conducted Jan. 10-13, 2021 among 1,000 registered voters – 590 of whom were reached only by cell phone – and the survey has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.