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A new poll finds major warning signs for Biden and fellow Democrats

President Biden traveled to Kansas City, Mo., Wednesday to talk about how the newly signed infrastructure law will boost the community. As Biden sells his agenda, a new NPR/Marist poll finds his approval rating stuck at 42%.
Chip Somodevilla
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President Biden traveled to Kansas City, Mo., Wednesday to talk about how the newly signed infrastructure law will boost the community. As Biden sells his agenda, a new NPR/Marist poll finds his approval rating stuck at 42%.

Americans don't feel the direct payments or expanded child tax credits doled out earlier this year helped them much, according to the latest NPR/Marist poll, and they don't see Democrats' signature legislation as addressing their top economic concern — inflation.

Additionally, they're down on the job President Biden is doing, don't give him much credit for the direct payments or tax credits, and have soured on the direction of the country.

The results, out Thursday, come as Democrats prepare a nationwide push to sell voters on their policies ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, when the party will defend its slim majorities in both the House and the Senate.

Americans do mostly endorse the new infrastructure law but are less supportive of Democrats' Build Back Better bill that has passed the House. And while that legislation would expand the social safety net, survey respondents weren't convinced that it would help people like them.

"They [Democrats] don't have a unified message for what they're doing, and that does not bode well for the party," said Barbara Carvalho, director of the Marist Poll.

Views on direct payments and the child tax credit

More than 6 in 10 respondents said they received the onetime direct payment of up to $1,400 earlier this year. As of late April, the Internal Revenue Service estimated that more than 163 million people had received payments from that program.

However, 4 in 5 of those who received the payments said the money helped at least a little, but only a quarter said it helped a lot.

Democrats have called their agenda under Biden "transformative" for most Americans. They say policies like the direct payments and changes to the child tax credit are part of a broader plan for the federal government to provide needed services and support to people who have historically been disadvantaged in the economy.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks during a July 20 Capitol Hill news conference on families helped by the expanded child tax credit.
Win McNamee / Getty Images
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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks during a July 20 Capitol Hill news conference on families helped by the expanded child tax credit.

Democrats say the child tax credit has a particularly large impact on low-income families for whom the additional funds have been crucial. A recent study from Columbia University found that those monthly payments kept 3.6 million children out of poverty in October.

In the NPR/Marist survey, almost 6 in 10 eligible households said they received the child tax credit. But the 59% of eligible respondents is far below the number of families that the government expects should be getting funds. The IRS estimated earlier this year that the families of 88% of children in the U.S. would be eligible for the payments and said in September that 35 million families received them.

The disconnect between the government figures and respondents' answers is a perception and credit problem for Biden and Democrats.

Even among those who did recall receiving the tax credit, two-thirds said it only helped a little and 1 in 5 said it didn't help at all.

Biden's perception problem

For the president, there were further signs that voters don't give him credit for the policies of his own administration.

When it came to those direct payments, respondents gave Democrats in Congress a plurality of the credit for getting them to people (40%), while 17%, credited Republicans — even though zero congressional Republicans voted for the March relief bill.

The same percentage — just 17% — felt Biden was most responsible for sending the cash.

"It doesn't look like he's leading the charge even though it's his bill," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion.

"It's an issue of the messaging out of the White House," Miringoff said.

The president's approval rating was just 42% in this survey, tied with a late November poll for the lowest Marist had found since Biden took office.

What's more, the intensity of disapproval is high — 38% said they strongly disapprove of Biden. That's close to the territory that President Donald Trump resided in during his term.

While the numbers are a sign of a deeply polarized society, there's also evidence of lackluster feelings for the president among even people in his own party.

For example, in the survey, while 76% of Republicans strongly disapproved of the job Biden is doing, only 38% of Democrats strongly approved.

Biden's presidency was always likely to be defined by the coronavirus pandemic and the economy, and on both measures, the country faces significant challenges.

Half of Americans approve of how Biden is handling the pandemic, but the 50% rating in this survey is his lowest mark since taking office.

In the late November NPR/Marist poll, respondents said their top economic concern was inflation, but in this survey, people were pessimistic that either the infrastructure or social safety net bills would help curb it. Only about a third said so of both.

"They're [Democrats] not connecting the dots between concern about inflation and what's happening in Washington, either with the infrastructure bill or Build Back Better," Carvalho said, who said this should "absolutely" be a red flag for the party.

Democrats have spent months repeating the message that their legislation will not add to the deficit or worsen inflation. In an address from the White House in October, Biden called the plans fiscally responsible policies to help the country grow.

"They don't add a single penny to the deficit," he said. "And they don't raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 a year. In fact, they reduce the deficit."

Overall, 61% of respondents said things in the country are going in the wrong direction. That's a significant drop from back in July, when Biden was saying the U.S. was on the cusp of independence from the pandemic. Americans then were split but more optimistic than they are now on the direction of the country.

The infrastructure law and Build Back Better

A majority — 56% — said they support the infrastructure bill that went into law recently. Almost 7 in 10 said they were optimistic it would improve roads and bridges, and a slim majority was optimistic that it would create better-paying jobs.

Fewer supported the Build Back Better legislation that passed the House and that the Senate is considering — 41% said they supported it, 34% said they were opposed and 25% were unsure. That included a significant chunk of independents, who were split on what they thought of the bill.

Perhaps more worrying for Democrats, their message on what the legislation can do for regular people does not appear to be getting through. By a 46% to 42% margin, respondents said they were pessimistic it would help people like them.

Methodology notes: The survey of 1,172 adults was conducted from Nov. 30 through Dec. 6 using live interviewers via cellphone and landline.

For the sample of all adults, the poll has a 3.8 percentage point margin of error. That means results could be 3.8 points higher or lower than the numbers shown. Of 1,172 surveyed, 1,062 are registered voters. When voters are referenced, the question has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Of those surveyed, 723 adults reported receiving the direct payments and 196 reported receiving the expanded child tax credit. The credit was converted into a monthly payment in July. Families with a combined income of up to $400,000 a year are eligible for up to $300 per month, per child.

For the group receiving the direct payments, there's a margin of 4.8 percentage points, and for those receiving the child tax credit, the error margin is a higher 9.2 percentage points.

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Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.