Any Democrat who thinks the party’s better-than-expected November midterm-election outcome was an affirmation of President Biden and the Democratic Congress policies and accomplishments will have a rude awakening reading the just-released NBC News poll. Conversely, any Republicans seeking support for their agenda would be equally hard-pressed to find it in the poll.

Americans continue to be deeply pessimistic about how things are going in the country. Just 23 percent of adults nationwide say the country was headed in the right direction, while 71 percent say it is on the wrong track. Richard Wirthlin, President Reagan’s pollster, used to call this question “the Dow Jones indicator of American politics.” In eight of the last nine NBC News polls since October 2021, the wrong-track number has been at 70 percent or more, the longest period of sustained pessimism in the 34-year history of the poll (formerly the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll) since its inception in 1989.

This pessimism should not be surprising as many people see themselves straining financially. While economic data show that the rate of inflation in the U.S. is slowing down, the public hasn’t yet felt it in their own lives. When asked how their family’s income is doing compared with the cost of living, just about 1 in 20 see their incomes rising faster than the cost of living, about a quarter (28 percent) feel they are staying even, and almost two-thirds (64 percent) feel that they are falling behind. In politics, given the choice between reality and perception, it is always wiser to go with perception.

Given this, it should not be a surprise that Biden’s job-approval ratings are poor. Biden’s overall rating sits at 45 percent (18 percent strongly approve and 27 percent somewhat approve), while 50 percent disapprove (10 percent somewhat disapprove and 40 percent strongly disapprove).

Respondents were also asked to assess Biden on three specific issue areas. On handling “the war between Russia and Ukraine,” 41 percent approve and 50 percent disapprove. The approval number is down 5 points from October, but exactly in line with where it was when the question was asked in March and May of last year. On handling “foreign policy,” the numbers are precisely the same as on Russia/Ukraine, 41 and 50 percent, roughly in line with the four previous times the question has been asked. In terms of handling “the economy,” things are rougher for Biden, with just 36 percent approving and 61 percent disapproving.

The 1,000 adult respondents were asked to rate Biden on seven attributes, each on a scale from one to five. Biden’s highest marks came on “easygoing and likable" and “being knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the presidency." His worst traits were “having the necessary mental and physical health to be president" and “uniting the country."

When respondents were asked whether they had positive, neutral, or negative views of a person or party, Biden had a 39 percent positive, 15 percent neutral, and 46 percent negative rating. Feelings about former President Trump were 32 percent positive, 15 percent neutral, 53 percent negative. Democrats in Congress drew 36 percent positive, 45 percent negative ratings, while Republicans in Congress were 27 percent positive, 48 percent negative.

As Republicans take over the U.S. House, 25 percent say they “will bring mostly the right kind of change to the country”; precisely the same percentage say they will bring “mostly the wrong kind of change to the country. Forty-seven percent say they “will not bring much change either way.”

When the same question was asked about Biden, 30 percent chose "the right kind of change," 42 percent picked "mostly the wrong kind of change," and 26 percent expected not much either way.

The pollsters asked if Republicans in Congress will be too inflexible in dealing with President Biden, will be too quick to give in to President Biden, or will strike the right balance in dealing with President Biden, then asked the same question about Biden dealing with Republicans in Congress. The poll found that 54 percent expected Republicans will be too inflexible in dealing with Biden, to just 10 percent who think they’ll be too quick to give in. Twenty-eight percent said they would strike the right balance. For Biden, 45 percent thought he would be too inflexible, 11 percent said he would be too quick to give in to Republicans, and 35 percent expected the right balance.

When respondents were asked who they would like to see take the lead role in setting policy for the country, Biden and Democrats in Congress or Republicans in Congress, the numbers were almost even: 48 percent picked Biden and Democrats, 45 percent Republicans in Congress.

When they were asked their preference for control of Congress in the 2024 election, the results were basically tied: 47 percent chose Republicans, 46 percent Democrats.

There has been a ton of good, pre-State of the Union polling data released over the last couple of days, from CNNMarist College, and CBS.

At this stage, it looks like a third election in a row in which voters aren’t fond of either side and are just trying to figure out which is the lesser of two evils.

The article was originally published for the National Journal on February 2, 2023.

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