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Biden gets high approval on America's top issues. He faces warning signs, too.

New surveys show the president performing strongly on the economy and Covid-19. But he's vulnerable on cultural issues like immigration and guns.
Image: President Joe Biden arrives at New Castle Airport in New Castle, Delaware
President Biden talks to reporters as he arrives at New Castle Airport in Delaware on Friday.Joshua Roberts / Reuters

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden enjoys high national approval on his handling of the economy and the coronavirus pandemic, according to new polling.

But he faces warning signs, too, receiving lower marks on culturally divisive issues like immigration and gun control — including some skepticism from Democrats, who are expecting results.

Biden enjoys approval from 60 percent of Americans on the economic recovery — including 89 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of independents and 23 percent of Republicans, according to an ABC News/Ipsos survey released Sunday.

In addition, 72 percent of Americans approve of Biden's response to Covid-19. And 75 percent approve of his handling of vaccine distribution, including a majority of Republicans.

That's good news for Biden, as economic and public health issues rank as most important to voters. It comes after the president enacted a popular $1.9 trillion Covid-19 and economic aid package, which includes direct cash payments of up to $1,400 per person that have reached bank accounts.

A recent Economist/YouGov poll found Biden's approval on jobs and the economy at 46 percent, with disapproval at 40 percent.

Overall, Biden's overall job approval is 54 percent, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average — lower than his marks on top issues but higher than former President Donald Trump ever received in four years.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who co-conducts NBC/Wall Street Journal surveys, said that a strong economy and an approval rating above 50 percent could be a "bulwark" for Democrats to buck the historical trend of midterm defeats for an incumbent party.

But he cautioned that voters are quick to forget what a president has done and move on to the next problem come election time.

"This country doesn’t give you much credit for the good things you do," McInturff said. "We’re a long, long way away before the structure of the 2022 election is set."

Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher said he was positively shocked at Biden's marks on Covid-19 and the economy, considering the entrenched polarization in this country.

"It's insane!" Belcher said. "I am absolutely gobsmacked that Biden has this rather universal approval — 72 percent, 75 percent support for anything these days — you just don’t see that."

"It speaks to an ability for him to be a transformative kind of president that I wasn’t thinking he could be before the election," he said. "He has such tremendous political capital right now, and I think he’s got to go out there and spend it. If he spends it well then the party will benefit from it."

Opportunities and perils ahead

Biden has an opportunity to build on those economic ratings with upcoming efforts to invest in infrastructure, health care and the workforce — which have a path to bypassing the Senate's 60-vote threshold that threatens other parts of his agenda.

"Republicans should be very concerned that Biden is performing this well in the polls on handling of Covid and economic recovery," said GOP donor Dan Eberhart, an oil-and-gas executive. "It’s still early, but recruiting, fundraising and endorsements now lay the groundwork for who is going to win the House and the Senate in 2022."

But Republicans see openings elsewhere.

The ABC News poll found that on gun violence, Biden's approval is 42 percent (with 57 percent disapproving), and on the U.S.-Mexico border situation, his approval is 41 percent (with 57 percent disapproving). Notably, about one-third of Democrats disapproved of his handling of both those issues.

Republicans have focused on immigration in particular to mobilize their base after Trump struck a chord with many conservative voters by portraying newcomers and refugees as a threat to native-born Americans.

"Democrats are going to overreach on issues like gun control and immigration," Eberhart said. "Immigration is a winner for Republicans because Biden’s left flank want no enforcement and they undermine Biden's middle-of-the-road tendencies."

Those issues are a double-edge sword for Biden. Enacting his policies risks igniting a backlash, but failure could upset Democratic voters. Unlike Covid-19 relief and infrastructure funding, those issues do not qualify for a simple-majority vote in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between the two parties, meaning they will require a minimum of 10 Republican votes to defeat a filibuster.

Biden has also said he plans to raise taxes on corporations and Americans making over $400,000. McInturff said that could be a vulnerability for Democrats because voters may not believe that the party will stop there if they keep power.

"An easy campaign for Republicans is: immigration, guns and taxes," McInturff said. "The roots of that easy campaign are in today’s nascent policy proposals from Democrats."