WASHINGTON — When Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. takes the oath to become the country's 46th president on Wednesday, he will face an increasingly polarized, pessimistic and pained nation, according to numbers from the latest national NBC News poll.
More than 7 in 10 voters believe the country is on the wrong track, another 7 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 the deaths of more than 170,000 people in the U.S. from Covid-19 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 him.
"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 the survey with the Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies.
"This is the America that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris inherit," Horwitt said.
McInturff noted that Biden's favorability rating has remained virtually unchanged since the campaign began and that it doesn't appear that he will have the same honeymoon with the American public that other modern presidents — other than 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 the poll, puts Biden'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.
The wrong track number is up by 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 for this question since July 2016.
An equal 73 percent believe the nation will remain divided over the next four years, compared to 24 percent who think it will be able to unite.
And by 53 percent to 44 percent, voters say they're mainly worried and pessimistic about the nation's future rather than hopeful and optimistic — the first time more respondents have answered "worried/pessimistic" on this question, which dates 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," a Democratic respondent said.
"Frightened. Extremely sickened. Un-united," another Democrat said.
"Civil war," a Republican respondent said.
60 percent approve of Biden's handling of the transition
The poll shows that 60 percent of voters approve of Biden's handling of the transition and his preparations for becoming president, compared to 32 percent who disapprove.
The numbers are higher than Trump's were before he took office (44 percent approval, 52 percent disapproval), but they are lower than Barack Obama's (71 percent approval, 14 percent disapproval).
The poll also finds that a majority of voters, 55 percent, believe Biden will return to the more typical way previous presidents have governed.
But only 37 percent express high confidence that he has the right set of goals and policies, and just 43 percent have high confidence that he 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 in which 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 adherence to positions (33 percent).
Biden gets high marks on experience, likability, low marks on issues
Finally, the 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 likable (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.
Voters' lowest marks come on the economy (39 percent give Biden a "4" or a "5") and on sharing their 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 cellphone — and has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.