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More voters are rating Trump’s presidency as ‘better than expected’ in hindsight

Voters are delivering a poor assessment of President Joe Biden’s job performance as he and former President Donald Trump prepare for a 2024 rematch. They are also looking back more fondly than before on Trump’s tenure in office.

Just 14% of registered voters say Biden has done a better job as president than they expected he would, according to the latest NBC News national poll. Another 42% say Biden has done a worse job than they expected, and 44% say his tenure has gone about as they expected it would. 

But 40% say Trump’s presidency was better than expected, with 29% saying it was worse and 31% saying it was about as expected.

The marks for Trump are slightly better than they were when NBC News asked the same question about his administration in August 2018. Then, 29% of registered voters said the Trump administration was going better than expected, 27% said it was going worse, and 43% said it was going about as expected.

Biden’s lower marks come in part from disappointment from inside his own party. While 52% of Democrats say his administration has met expectations, 30% say it has been better than they expected, and 18% said it has been worse. Trump inspires more enthusiastic Republican loyalty, with 80% of his party saying his administration was better than expected and just 6% saying it was worse. Another 24% of Republicans say Trump’s tenure was about as expected. 

Critically, Trump also fares far better than Biden with independent voters — 38% of them say Trump’s administration went better than expected, 43% say it went as expected, and 18% say it was worse. Just 6% of independents believe Biden’s administration is going better than they expected, with 52% saying it has gone worse. 

When respondents were asked to expand on their feelings about both candidates in short, open-ended responses, many of the answers hinged on the economy and the border. 

“On every front: immigration, the wars, economy, pretty much you name it. He needs to close the border. He’s being pushed around too much. He needs to take charge like a superpower like we are,” a male Illinois Republican in his early 40s said of Biden. “He was passing out too much money, and it caused inflation to skyrocket, so prices are way too high.”

Others with low views of Biden’s presidency cited his age, their concerns about his competency or frustration that the country still seems divided. 

“The economy is stagnant as I’m concerned. I don’t see it getting better or worse, but I do not see anything that will improve it,” said a New York independent woman who voted for Biden in 2020. 

“In 2020, he ran on bringing us together, and instead he made us further away. I’d like to have seen someone bring the country together,” she said.

How poll respondents who thought Biden's presidency was worse than expected described it.
How poll respondents who thought Biden’s presidency was worse than expected described it.Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies for NBC News

Voters in Biden’s base are more sympathetic, but many are frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of action on his part. 

A South Carolina man in his mid-30s who identifies as an independent and said he voted for Biden in 2020 felt he hasn’t delivered on his promises during that election, including those on student debt reduction and child care. While Biden pushed for many progressive policies in the 2021 Build Back Better Act, including extending child tax credits and other policies, he didn’t have the votes to pass that bill in the Senate. Democrats ultimately agreed on and passed a slimmed-down proposal a year later that lacked some of Biden’s signature goals. 

“Nothing has touched me when it comes to Biden at all that I can say, at least, ‘Yeah, there was a trickle down,’” said Dionne Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who voted for Biden in 2020. 

Holt added that even though she has seen job numbers and the stock market improve, she isn’t sure Biden’s policies are responsible. And she added that she continues to see headlines about significant layoffs across the country even amid the broader good news. 

“Nothing really is because of him. It’s so strange that I don’t feel that, but I just don’t feel that way,” she said. “I just don’t see where he has actually, himself, stimulated the economy.” 

Other 2020 Biden voters also criticized his handling of the war between Israel and Hamas. 

Among the 14% who said Biden has done better than expected, many celebrated an improving economy, his handling of the Covid pandemic, his pushback against Trump and his policies on issues like infrastructure and the environment. 

Kenichi Nishikawa, a California Democrat in his mid-50s who voted for Biden, said he sees an economy that is turning around, which is the No. 1 reason he believes Biden is doing a good job. 

“I think the economy is doing a lot better than anybody would have expected. I think he’s faced the turmoil from the Republican Party better than I expected. I think that he’s pushed through some really good programs, like the CHIPS initiative and the infrastructure [law],” he said.

How poll respondents who thought Biden's presidency was better than expected described it.
How poll respondents who thought Biden’s presidency was better than expected described it.Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies for NBC News

“I think the economy is the biggest thing, because it seems like all the numbers are going in the right direction,” he said.

The vast majority of Republicans have fond memories of Trump’s time in office and see a mirror image of the current administration. 

“I think the economy was growing and the country was secure. Well, we had the border, and we had no wars, we had no wars with the other foreign countries,” said an Illinois Republican in his mid-50s. 

How poll respondents who thought Trump's presidency was better than expected described it.
How poll respondents who thought Trump’s presidency was better than expected described it.Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies for NBC News

Independents and even Democrats pointed to similar things, largely the economy and immigration, in explaining why they thought Trump’s administration did better than expected. 

Those who thought Trump’s administration was worse than expected largely cited his response to the pandemic, his personal behavior and his actions in regard to rejecting the 2020 election results and to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

How poll respondents who thought Trump's presidency was worse than expected described it.
How poll respondents who thought Trump’s presidency was worse than expected described it.Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies for NBC News

But Holt, the New Jersey Biden voter who had a pessimistic view of his administration, showed the limitations Trump may have even with some voters who believe his tenure went better than expected, as she did. 

Asked whether her rosier views of Trump’s tenure compared to Biden’s mean she’d give Trump a look in 2024, she replied with an emphatic “no way.” 

“He just isn’t good for the country,” Holt said, citing the Capitol attack.

“You cross a line that you can’t come back from, regardless,” she said.

The NBC News poll of 1,000 registered voters — 867 contacted via cellphone — was conducted Jan. 26-30 and has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.

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