2021 CBS News polling: What Americans thought about COVID-19, Biden, the January 6 attack and more

2021 was a year of ups and downs in the minds of the American public.

The year began with public concern about the state of U.S. democracy, yet positive ratings for newly-elected President Joe Biden; ratings that would turn more negative over the course of the year. In the spring, there was some optimism about the pandemic as vaccine rates rose and then some concern as a new COVID variant emerged at year’s end.  Many of the political divisions we’ve seen in recent years endured throughout 2021 but, all in all, Americans are feeling pretty good about 2022.

CBS News polled thousands of people across the country this year getting their opinions on a range of issues. Here’s a look back at some of the highlights from CBS News polling in 2021: 

January: After attack on the Capitol, most say democracy under threat, support for second Trump impeachment

After a contentious presidential election that saw record turnout during a pandemic, 2021 did not start off quietly, but instead, with an attack on the U.S. Capitol. Supporters of then- President Trump attempted to disrupt Congress’ counting of the electoral votes

Amid the attack and the objection by 147 Republican lawmakers to the counting of the Electoral College votes,  a majority of Americans were optimistic about him as the next president. Fewer than a third called it secure. 

In response to the events at the Capitol on January 6, the House of Representatives introduced and later adopted one article of impeachment of “incitement of insurrection” against Trump, alleging that he had incited the attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

Similar to the first impeachment proceedings brought against Trump in 2019, views on the matter split along partisan lines: Most Democrats, along with independents, favored impeachment. Most Republicans opposed impeaching Trump and believed he did nothing wrong to deserve removal or resignation. 


Meanwhile, just ahead of Joe Biden being sworn into office, a majority of Americans were optimistic about him as the next president. Most Republicans, however,  were not, as two-thirds did not view Biden as the legitimate winner of the 2020 presidential election, a view that would persist throughout 2021.

February: Biden starts off with high marks, Republicans still behind Trump

The CBS News poll took its first measure of President Biden’s overall job rating in February. 61% of Americans approved of his job performance, much of it boosted by the good marks he received on his handling of the coronavirus outbreak.  His overall approval rating was higher than Trump’s at the start of his presidency, while similar to Barack Obama’s at the start of his first term.


Still, most Republicans disapproved of the job Biden was doing, and as Trump’s second impeachment trial began, rank and file Republicans remained strongly behind the former president. By more than 2 to 1,  they called any Republican vote in Congress to impeach or convict Trump as disloyal, rather than principled.


March: After a year of COVID, many Americans exhausted, but also optimistic, Republicans more hesitant to get vaccinated

March 2021 marked one year since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and after a year of the outbreak, Americans were feeling a range of emotions as it related to the coronavirus, including exhaustion and stress, but also gratitude. For many, their lives had been transformed over the past year. At the time, 1 in 5 Americans reported that a close friend or relative had died from COVID-19.  

Many said the virus outbreak had a negative impact on their finances, as well as on their mental and emotional health. 


But they expressed some optimism about the future, as many expected these things to improve. And 63% of Americans expected the coronavirus situation overall to get better in the next few months.


Vaccines were driving optimism about containing the pandemic. At this point, more than half of U.S. adults said they planned to get vaccinated or had already gotten at least one shot. Still, a portion of the public was hesitant about the vaccine and that hesitancy was – and continues to be – related to partisanship.  Republicans were less likely than the broader public to say they would get vaccinated, something that remains today. 

Along with this bit of public optimism, the president continued to get high marks for his handling of the coronavirus outbreak.


April: Widespread agreement with Chauvin guilty verdict

George Floyd’s death in the spring of 2020 sparked protests across the country by Black Lives Matter and other groups concerning the treatment of racial minorities by police.  Nearly a year later, former police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering Floyd – a verdict that 3 in 4 Americans believed was the right one. This majority view spanned racial, age and partisan groups.


As the country celebrated Earth Day, most Americans continued to believe climate change is something that needs to be addressed urgently, and 7 in 10 said their generation has at least some responsibility to make sacrifices and take care of the environment. 


May: Republicans support ouster of Cheney from House leadership, continue to prioritize loyalty to Trump

Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney, a vocal critic of Trump’s actions on January 6 and one of the few Republicans who voted to impeach him over the matter, was removed from her House leadership post, an action supported by most rank and file Republicans. Eight in 10 Republicans who were aware of Cheney’s removal agreed with her ouster, saying she was off-message, unsupportive of former president Trump, and that she was wrong about the 2020 presidential election. 


Six months after Trump was defeated in his re-election bid for president, two-thirds of Republicans nationwide said it was important for Republicans to be loyal to Trump.  And a similar percentage continued to say that Mr. Biden was not the legitimate winner of the 2020 election, little changed since January shortly before Mr. Biden was sworn into office.


June: Americans wanted Biden to get tough with Putin, remote work gains traction

Ahead of President Biden’s  summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin most Americans wanted him to take a tough stand with Putin rather than a cooperative approach.  Majorities of  Republicans, Democrats and independents held this view.  


While Mr. Biden and Putin met face to face, some Americans were still meeting and working remotely.   As they look to the future, more working Americans said they preferred a hybrid work model –  a mix of some days at work and some at home – or work remotely all the time, for the next year. 


As the country marked Pride month nearly 8 in 10 said the last 50 years had brought progress in ending discrimination against LGBTQ people, although a majority said discrimination still exists in society today.

July: The debate over voting rights heats up  and Biden marks six months in office

Since the 2020 election, some states have tried to change their voting rules but most Americans said they’d prefer the voting process be left alone or made easier. Relatively few wanted it to be harder.


And while Congress has made little headway on the issue of voting rights, a majority of Americans feel federal oversight is indeed necessary today to make sure minorities have the same access to voting as White people do. Although fewer Republicans (most of whom think voting should be made harder) think that’s necessary. 


Six months into his presidency,  Mr. Biden continued to get good marks for his handling of the coronavirus.  And more Americans were feeling hopeful than scared about things over the next year. 

But as the president continued to urge  people to get a COVID vaccine, most Republicans — more of whom are vaccine hesitant compared to the public overall — told us the Biden administration was focusing too much on trying to get people  vaccinated. 


August: Most critical of withdrawal from Afghanistan, a turning point for the Biden presidency?

Nearly 20 years after the U.S. war in Afghanistan began, it ended with a much-criticized withdrawal of U.S. troops. Americans supported troops getting out, but public reaction to how the withdrawal played out was decidedly negative. 74% of Americans said it went badly, including majorities across political lines.


Americans gave Mr. Biden negative marks for his handling of the removal of U.S. troops. Also, most did not think he had a clear plan for evacuating U.S. civilians nor did they feel the U.S. was doing enough to help Afghan people trying to leave (including most Democrats).   

The president’s overall approval rating took a hit —  dropping eight points in a month — and in CBS News polling to date — that approval rating has not rebounded. 


Here at home, the school year was beginning to get underway and debates over mask mandates in schools were taking place across the country.  Nationally, a majority of parents favored requiring students to wear masks as most expressed at least some concern about their children contracting the coronavirus in school.


Like views related to the coronavirus among the broader public, parents’ opinions also divided largely along political lines. Parents who are Republican expressed less concern than Democrats about their children getting COVID, and these partisan views extended to opinions on masks: Most Democrats supported a mask requirement in their children’s school, but most Republicans did not. 

September:  Twenty years after 9/11, most see a country forever changed 

This September marked 20 years since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and two-thirds of Americans believe the country was forever changed on that day.

Americans see a mix of good and bad when looking at ways the country may have changed: most see the enhanced airport security measures as changes for the better. Stricter security measures may have come at a cost, however, as more feel personal privacy and freedoms have changed for the worse, rather than better, as result of the attacks.


Thinking about 9/11 continues to be emotional for most Americans.  They told us “Sad” describes the way they most often feel when they think or hear about that day. Many still expressed “disbelief,” even two decades later. 

October:  The Build Back Better agenda – most don’t know a lot about it

As Congressional Democrats negotiated within their own party over the President’s “Build Back Better” plan, Americans were more likely to have heard about the cost of the plan than the specific policies that could be in it. 

Yet some of what could potentially be in the bill was quite popular, in principle, particularly items like expanded Medicare coverage and lowered prescription costs — but these were the  least heard about items.  



On the coronavirus, we continued to see splits in views by vaccine status. The vaccinated strongly favored mandates and proof of vaccines to enter some public places, while the unvaccinated opposed those measures. The vaccinated also voiced frustration with the unvaccinated. When asked to pick ways to describe the unvaccinated, the fully vaccinated often chose “they’re putting people like me and my family at risk” and “they’re being misled” as descriptors.

November: Biden’s ratings drop amid inflation worries

As prices for goods and services were going up, Americans’ ratings of the economy and President Biden were going down.  In November, the public’s assessments of the national economy were the most negative since the summer of 2020 and their overall approval rating of Biden dropped to the lowest of his presidency. 


President Biden was able to tout the passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill which drew backing from a majority of Americans, but 67%  disapproved of this handling of inflation.

And this dragged down his overall approval rating to 44%.  Mr. Biden’s ratings for handling coronavirus generally, and vaccine distribution remained positive, but when asked specifically which issues mattered most in how they evaluate Mr. Biden, the economy stood out.


Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in an abortion case that represents a direct challenge to the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Ahead of those arguments, a majority of Americans told us that they support keeping Roe in place and by two to one said overturning it would represent a step backward for women rather than a step forward.


December: Most are hopeful about 2022

As the year was winding down, another COVID variant was popping up. In our polling conducted in early December, before Omicron became the dominant variant in the U.S., most Americans were proceeding with their holiday plans, including gathering with family and friends, although 58% of Americans were at least somewhat concerned about Omicron. 

Overall, when Americans look back over the past year, feelings are mixed. 42% said 2021 was mostly filled with happiness for them personally, 20 points higher than the number who described 2020 that way when we polled the public last year.  

But almost as many American said 2021 was mostly a sad year for them.  


Still, as they look ahead, most Americans feel hopeful about 2022, regardless of whether 2021 was a sad or happy year for them. 


2022: The year ahead

Looking to next year,  2022 will be full of events to cover from the COVID-19 pandemic to the midterm elections to a Supreme Court ruling on abortion. Who will win control of Congress? How much of a factor will President Biden be in the midterms? After optimism earlier this year, will the coronavirus be contained?  The CBS News polling team will continue to measure the views of the American public on the key issues and events that arise. Stay tuned.

This analysis is based on CBS News polls conducted in 2021. Anthony Salvanto, Fred Backus and Kabir Khanna contributed to portions of this analysis.

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