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Gallup began polling Americans on their faith in the presidency in 1975. Richard Nixon had just resigned from the job and President Gerald Ford had quickly issued a divisive, slate-cleaning pardon of his disgraced predecessor. Even as the country was nursing the wounds of scandal and struggling to understand how the Oval Office had become Ground Zero in the commission of domestic criminality, 52% of Americans still said they had faith in the presidency as an institution.
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. Today, a meager 23% of Americans have faith in the presidency, a 15-point drop from just one year ago. 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. But dig deeper and another story emerges. 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. Signs point to Trump having salted the ground of the Oval Office as he left it, in a way that may be unfixable.
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. In 2020, with Trump still wielding the powers of the presidency, a staggering 84% of Republicans told Gallup that they had a great deal or quite a lot of faith in the institution. This year? Just 2% of Republicans said they held the institution with the same confidence.
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. During the final year of the Trump presidency, 16% of Democrats still told Gallup that they had faith in the presidency. That number surged to 69% during Biden’s first year in power before falling back to 51% this year.
So why does this matter? 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. On the left, progressives are trying to do to the Supreme Court what Trump did to the presidency. Institutions are supposed to be the grounding that survives the individuals, mooring the broader field to consistency. Biden won in 2020 by promising to restore a sense of normalcy to the presidency; Trump sent a mob he knew was armed to the Capitol to pressure Congress to let him keep the role. (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. Knocking down government and its institutions was an explicit goal of the Trump team. 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. Confidence in institutions has been slipping for years with varying 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. At times of war, tragedy, and crisis, the presidency is the unifying role that does its best to steady the United States and at least steer it to a stable plane. With almost zero Republicans giving the presidency high marks and 77% telling pollsters they have very little confidence in the institution, that is a very real and manifest threat to the country itself.
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. The FiveThirtyEight historical comparisons show Biden under even Nixon and Jimmy Carter at this point in his presidency, and Democrats have stopped with the civility typically afforded their party leader. 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.
Still, rude or not, those Democrats can read the same polling data outsiders can, and they certainly have more detailed 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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