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Gallup first began to poll Americans in 1975 about their belief in the presidency. Richard Nixon was just about to resign from his job, and President Gerald Ford quickly granted a divisive slate-cleaning pardon for his disgraced predecessor. Despite the nation being stricken by scandal and trying to figure out how the Oval Office became Ground Zero for domestic crime, 52% Americans said that they still believed in the presidency.
Almost five decades later, such blind faith in the presidency itself—and not the person in the role—seems quaint. The unrelenting disclosures of the Trump era and President Joe Biden’s continued slide in voters’ minds has provided a one-two punch to the country’s mindset. The current level of faith in the presidency is just 23%, down 15 points from one year earlier. To find a comparable weakness, you have to go back to the hellish lurches of President George W. Bush’s 2007 crises in Iraq or the 2008 economic meltdown.
At first glance, the data suggests Biden’s performance is to blame for the loss of faith in the presidency. You will find another side to the story if you dig deeper. The abysmal drop in Gallup’s survey is almost entirely due to a loss of faith by Republicans. This isn’t simply an example of partisan flip-flopping. All signs point to Trump attempting to fix the Oval Office’s problems as soon as possible.
To be sure, the presidency isn’t the only pillar of American society to take a hit in Gallup’s polling on public confidence in institutions, but it is the perfect encapsulation of the country’s partisan divide. It’s easier to cheer for the star when he’s wearing your team’s jersey. With Trump still holding the power of presidency in 2020, 84% of Republicans said that they have a lot or a lot faith in the institution. How did it perform this year? Only 2% of Republicans stated that they had the same level of confidence in the institution.
Democrats, for their part, have a slightly more durable view of the presidency—or at least have clung to the belief that government can be a force for good, the barrage of attacks on it from the last commander in chief notwithstanding. Gallup still found 16% support for the Trump presidency in its final year. That number surged to 69% during Biden’s first year in power before falling back to 51% this year.
Why is this important? For one, illegitimate institutions are easier to ignore, and Republicans have worked with consistency and vigor to discount Biden’s presidency, starting during the transition and continuing to this day. The left is where progressives want to emulate Trump’s approach to the Supreme Court. The institutions are meant to provide the foundation that sustains individuals and bind the wider field to stability. Biden was elected in 2020 after promising normalcy and armed opposition to Trump’s presidency. Trump then sent an armed mob to Capitol Hill to press Congress for his continued acceptance of the position. (Congress’ confidence levels, by the way, stand at 7% among all Americans, a staggering accomplishment to be viewed as less credible than newspapers and television news, even after Trump’s “fake news” offensive.)
Secondly, the precipitous fall among Republicans is a revealing glimpse into how destructive Trump’s time in power actually was. At this point in Barack Obama’s presidency, at the height of the Tea Party takeover of the GOP and Congress in 2010, 11% of Republicans told Gallup that they still had faith in the presidency itself, even if they didn’t much care for the Democrat in the White House at the moment. Trump’s team had a clear goal: to destroy government and all its institutions. They may have succeeded in ways they didn’t realize.
A third point on a list that could populate an entire Government Department’s curriculum is that this is about far more than Biden. For years, Americans have been losing confidence in their institutions with various consequences. Small businesses and the military are the only two institutions that carry the confidence of the majority of Americans, while Congress, the media, and the criminal justice system are in the muck at the bottom of Americans’ minds. It’s not great for the country when so few people have faith that leading media organizations are doing their job appropriately, but it carries far less threat to the republic than having so few people believe in the presidency. The presidency serves as the unifying force that helps to stabilize the United States in times of crisis, war and tragedy. The country is under threat from this very serious and obvious danger. Nearly zero Republicans gave the presidency top marks, and 77% told pollsters that they don’t trust the institution.
Pollsters rightly note that confidence in the presidency has a statistical link to the specific president’s job approval ratings, and Biden’s are, frankly, garbage. FiveThirtyEight’s historical comparisons reveal that Biden was under Nixon and Jimmy Carter at the same point, while Democrats are no longer able to offer their party leaders the civility they used. Some are even openly musing if Biden should step aside and let someone else be the nominee in 2024—a stunning breach of deference that, in Biden’s comity-soaked Washington, will draw little punishment.
Regardless of how rude they may be, these Democrats are able to read poll data in the same way that outsiders do, but have better analysis. Biden’s team is stacked with some of the smartest minds in the Democratic Party, and his White House isn’t short on talent, either. That’s why it’s such a wonder to see him finally reach a job he’s coveted since the Watergate era and realize that, in some ways, those were the good ol’ days. At least back then, even with a scandal-plagued President in the rearview mirror and an embattled incumbent trying to heal the country in the driver’s seat, Americans still thought the presidency itself mattered. These days—with a not-inexact parallel—not so much.
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