In 2021, Gallup chronicled Americans' reactions as President Donald Trump left the White House and as President Joe Biden took office and settled into his new job. We also tracked Americans' evolving reactions to the coronavirus pandemic each month.
Just as important were the landmark changes we documented this year on key economic, social and political trends.
Here's the roll call:
Presidential Approval in Biden's First Year
The year began with Americans predicting that history will not be kind to Trump. His final job approval rating as president punctuated the point, registering a record low for him of 34%. At the same time, Americans largely approved of how the incoming Biden administration handled the presidential transition.
Once Biden took office, his first job approval rating, 57%, was just shy of the historical average for modern presidents. And he maintained majority approval through June. Yet these initial positive ratings masked record political polarization for an early-term president.
Biden's approval rating then dipped to about 50% over the summer, as the coronavirus situation deteriorated. It plunged to 43% in September, following the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, and remains at the same reduced level at year's end.
Political Identity and Ideology
With partisan polarization as strong as it is, public opinion of the presidency is best understood with the additional context of Americans' underlying party preferences.
- Gallup's January 2021 review of Americans' party ID found 30% of U.S. adults in 2020 identifying as Democrats, 29% as Republicans and 39% as independents.
- Only when considering the political leanings of independents did either party have a meaningful advantage coming into 2021, with Democrats' lead at five percentage points -- 48% to 43%.
- Democrats' leaned-party ID advantage over Republicans stretched to nine points in the first quarter.
- Gallup will review Americans' 2021 party preferences in January 2022, but a September poll already hinted at improvement for the GOP. That survey found more Americans than in 2020 choosing the Republicans over the Democrats as the party better able to keep the country safe and, separately, prosperous.
Meanwhile, the two parties are worlds apart when it comes to the diversity of members' self-ascribed political ideology. While the vast majority of Republicans (75%) self-identify as conservative, Democrats are divided, with nearly as many describing their political views as moderate (37%) or conservative (12%) as describing them as liberal (51%).
Americans as a whole are more politically fractured on social issues than on economic issues. Whereas about a third each identify as liberal (34%), moderate (35%) or conservative (30%) on social issues, a plurality (41%) are conservative on economic issues, with just a quarter identifying as liberal.
When it comes to Americans' views of leading economic systems, the majority of adults, including Democrats, view capitalism positively -- while the majority of adults, but not Democrats, view socialism negatively.
The Pandemic Roller Coaster
Regarding the coronavirus situation, Americans' mood quickly improved at the start of 2021 as optimism about the pandemic overtook the profound pessimism that had persisted in the second half of 2020. Accordingly, Americans' worry about getting COVID-19 and social distancing behaviors dwindled in the spring.
By May, the majority of Americans said their lives were at least somewhat back to normal as their optimism about the coronavirus situation reached 84%. U.S. adults' general wellbeing also soared at this time, with the percentage "thriving" surpassing pre-pandemic levels.
But by July, pandemic optimism was cut to 40% as the delta variant powered a new wave of infections, and optimism fell further to 15% in August. As the fall came around, optimism about the course of the pandemic greatly rebounded to 51% in October only to be quickly dashed again in December, falling back to 31%.
As the delta variant wreaked havoc on perceptions of the pandemic, Gallup's November healthcare poll found no change from the prior year in the percentage of Americans describing their mental or emotional health as "excellent," stuck at 34%, versus 43% pre-pandemic.
The Ripple Effects of COVID-19
Gallup has also tracked how the pandemic is affecting the workplace and education.
On the workplace:
- As of September, 45% of full-time U.S. employees were working remotely all or part of the time, little changed since the spring. The rate was significantly higher, at 67%, among workers in white-collar jobs, contrasted with 48% in education and 35% in healthcare.
- Less than half of U.S. workers favored employer vaccine mandates when Gallup first asked about them in May, but by September, support had grown to 58%.
- A Gallup analysis of worker emotions found that women's on-the-job burnout increased with the onset of the pandemic in 2020 and persisted in 2021, while men's edged down slightly.
On the education front, Gallup reported parents' views about remote learning and the use of masks in the classroom:
- In February, Gallup found 79% of K-12 parents in the U.S. supporting in-person schooling for elementary and secondary students in their community, including 94% of Republican parents and 62% of Democratic parents.
- At the start of the school year in August, Gallup found parents sharply split over mask-wearing policies, with 48% saying masks should be mandatory for all students and 41% saying masks shouldn't be required for any students. Eleven percent favored masks for unvaccinated students only.
Notable Highs and Lows in Gallup Trends
Several long-term Gallup trends reflected a growing social liberalism among Americans in 2021.
- This was seen in record support for interracial marriage (94% approving) and same-sex marriage (70%).
- A record-high 68% favored legalizing marijuana.
- At the same time, an unwelcome high of 32% of Americans said drugs have been a cause of trouble in their family.
Reflecting the heightened attention to race relations since the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, Americans' belief that good relations exist between Black and White people in the U.S. reached a new low of 42% in Gallup's two-decade trend, after descending to 44% in 2020. In most prior measurements since 2001, the majority rated race relations positively.
Partly because of younger generations' shift away from religion, the percentage of Americans who reported being a member of a church, synagogue or mosque fell to a record-low 47% according to a March 2021 Gallup report. This finding (based on combined 2018-2020 data) represents the first time in Gallup's trend since the 1930s that less than half of U.S. adults have claimed such membership.
Throughout the year, Gallup polls provided multiple signs of public discontent with their political institutions as well as the fourth estate:
- In late January/early February, Gallup found a record-high 62% believing that the two major parties "do such a poor job that a third major party is needed."
- In September, a record-low 40% approved of the job the Supreme Court was doing.
- At the same time, the 36% of Americans expressing trust in the media was the second lowest on record, while Americans' positive ratings of four media-related industries -- the computer, internet, publishing, and television and radio sectors -- were at record lows, mainly owing to Republicans souring on them.
And while trust in many societal institutions was steady -- albeit low -- in 2021, trust in the federal government to handle international problems fell to its lowest level yet, at 39%.
In terms of global perceptions, Americans' favorable views of two countries -- China and Russia -- hit record lows of 20% and 22%, respectively.
Shifting to positive trends, Americans in October were the most upbeat they have been since 2001 about the U.S. job market. Reflecting the nation's low unemployment rate and unprecedented labor shortages in many industries, 74% said it was a good time to find a job.
And with jobs plentiful, approval of labor unions (68%) was also the highest in more than a half-century.
Stable but Notable Views
In addition to tracking Americans' views on the president's performance, monitoring reactions to the pandemic and finding record-setting positions in 2021, Gallup documented stability in many of its long-term trends on a wide range of cultural and social matters. Some of the most relevant ones in light of recent news include:
- On abortion, Americans remain sharply divided, with 49% identifying as pro-choice and 47% as pro-life. At the same time, a clear majority (58%) oppose overturning Roe v. Wade.
- On the environment, Americans' concern about global warming has been steady in recent years, with just over four in 10 saying they worry a great deal about it and nearly six in 10 saying the effects have already begun.
- On immigration, Americans are sharply split about whether immigration to the U.S. should be kept at its present level (35%), increased (33%) or decreased (31%).
- On racial justice, Black Americans' experiences with discrimination in various public situations were steady or slightly worse in 2021 compared with 2020.
- Additionally, in new polling on transgender rights, Gallup found two-thirds of Americans favor allowing openly transgender men and women to serve in the military. By contrast, the majority think transgender athletes in competitive sports should only be allowed to play on teams that match their birth gender.
We Close Remembering 9/11
2021 contained two landmark anniversaries related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the U.S. that provided a natural time to review how the country has and hasn't changed since Sept. 11, 2001:
- May 2 marked 10 years from the day in 2011 that U.S. forces executed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. Gallup reviewed how Americans reacted to bin Laden's death at the time, including how it affected President Barack Obama's job approval rating.
- Sept. 11 marked 20 years from the day in 2001 that the 9/11 attacks occurred. A 2021 Gallup poll documented how public attitudes about terrorism have changed in the intervening years. Americans are less likely today than in 2001 to be avoiding travel by air, going into skyscrapers and traveling overseas because of the events that occurred on 9/11. But they are also less likely than they were in 2011 to believe the U.S. is winning the war against terrorism.
Gallup's regular polling on presidential approval, the coronavirus situation and numerous long-term trends will continue in 2022, Gallup's 88th year of measuring the will of the people.