joe biden

Can Joe Biden Build Back a Better Approval Rating?

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s approval rating is aging poorly. During his first week in office, FiveThirtyEight’s polling average pegged support for the president at 55 percent and the opposition at 37.3 percent. As of Thursday morning, those numbers are 46 percent and 49.1 percent, respectively. In the modern era, no president has ever had a lower approval rating at this point in their term — except for Donald Trump.

There is little controversy about the causes of Biden’s polling decline. The Delta variant soured voters on the president’s handling of the pandemic, while its adverse impact on growth dented Biden’s credibility on the economy. And, of course, the haphazard end to America’s two-decade-long war in Afghanistan bought Biden full weeks of wall-to-wall negative media coverage. These developments, when combined with the perennial tendency for sitting presidents to suffer approval declines over the course of their first terms, offer a satisfying explanation of Biden’s political plight.

Alas, just because you know why your poll numbers have fallen does not necessarily mean you know how to pull them back up. Some in the Democratic Party believe the antidote to Biden’s woes is straightforward: He simply needs to shepherd his historic economic agenda through Congress. Once the president makes good on his promise to improve material conditions for ordinary Americans — by signing into law a $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” bill that includes a child allowance, universal prekindergarten, paid family leave, enhanced Medicare benefits, public child care, green jobs, and more — a critical mass of swing voters will rally to his side.

But some within the party aren’t so sure about that. After all, if delivering clear material benefits to voters was the key to presidential popularity, Biden should have seen a big polling boost upon signing his American Rescue Plan in March. That law delivered $1,400 checks to over 85 percent of U.S. households. The typical family of four received a cool $5,600 in immediate cash benefits, courtesy of Uncle Joe. Then in July, 88 percent of Americans with small children also began receiving monthly cash payments for each little one under their roofs. And yet Biden did not enjoy any significant uptick in approval after the stimulus checks or child-allowance payments hit.

In fact, judging by one recent poll, most voters didn’t even notice that the Democratic Party had improved their checking account’s balance. A Daily Kos–Civiqs survey taken in late August found 57 percent of voters saying Biden hadn’t done anything that had benefited them personally.

Some Democrats are inclined to read that as an indictment of the party’s messaging rather than of the potential for progressive economic policy to move votes. It’s not that voters won’t reward Democrats for helping them materially; it’s that they don’t realize that Democrats have been doing so.

Yet Democrats consciously designed their cash-payment programs to be simple and conspicuous. And they went out of their way to call attention to those benefits, in sharp contrast to the party’s approach to messaging its stimulus in 2009. If that wasn’t enough to break through to the public in this era of fragmented media and mass civic disengagement, the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill won’t either. After all, the bulk of that legislation’s programs doesn’t even take full effect until 2023 or later.

A report from McClatchy published on Thursday does a nice job of curating this debate:

Stephen Webber remembers when he started to get worried about next year’s midterm elections. In March, he met a woman who tearfully explained how she had just paid for long-overdue car repairs after receiving an unexpected government payment.

But, politically speaking, there was a problem. This woman — a card-carrying member of a politically active grocers’ union — didn’t know Democrats had led the effort that was responsible for the influx of cash … “I don’t think one percent of reliable or frequent Democratic voters have even a decent understanding of what Democrats are trying to do in Washington, D.C., right now,” said Webber, a former chair of the Missouri Democratic Party.

… “These things get lost in the shuffle so fast,” said Bradley Beychok, a veteran Democratic strategist. “It’s not political malpractice, it’s that we’re living in a crazy world. And when Delta comes back, people aren’t thinking about what the government has given them. People less fortunate are thinking about how to survive.”

There is a third pole in this argument (besides “Democrats need better messaging” and “LOL, nothing matters”): Voters won’t reward Democrats for passing the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, even if they are made aware of its contents. The Democratic data scientist David Shor thinks his party should pass Biden’s agenda because it will make people’s lives better. But he argues that it won’t do much to help the party politically and might even hurt it, as swing voters are generally biased toward the status quo and hostile toward significant policy change. When Lyndon Johnson passed his “Great Society” agenda, which included the soon-to-be immensely popular Medicare and Medicaid programs, voters did not reward him in the ensuing midterms. Rather, the GOP gained 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate. And some political scientists believe that America’s perennial midterm backlashes are typically motivated by the median voter’s desire for “policy moderation.” The phenomenon of “thermostatic public opinion” — in which the electorate’s avowed policy views move left under Republican presidents and right under Democratic ones — is consistent with this hypothesis.

All this said, I think that passing Biden’s economic agenda (in its entirety) is the right thing for Democrats to do both substantively and politically.

My case for believing the $3.5 trillion bill’s passage will be politically beneficial is fourfold. First, although there is evidence that major policy reforms spur midterm backlashes, Biden’s reform agenda is exceptionally anodyne. The president is not trying to overhaul the U.S. health-care system, raise taxes on the middle class, or wage total war on any powerful corporate lobby. He is just trying to pass a long list of popular social-welfare policies and public investments, all financed by tax increases on the highest-earning one percent of Americans. None of this means Biden’s agenda will attract no backlash. But that backlash is likely to be unusually limited, relative to the breadth of the president’s reforms.

Second, legislative failure would demoralize the Democrats’ activist base and spur a lot of media coverage portraying Biden as weak and ineffectual. Avoiding that outcome is a political imperative, even if one expects the president to derive relatively little electoral benefit from enacting redistributive reforms.

Third, and most speculatively, the upcoming expiration of the American Rescue Plan’s advance child tax credits (a.k.a. Biden’s child allowance) gives Democrats an opportunity to raise the salience of their agenda and turn voters’ status-quo bias to their advantage. At the end of this year, a large majority of American families with young children will have received six monthly child-support payments from Uncle Sam, each worth hundreds of dollars. The sudden disappearance of that income stream is liable to catch voters’ attention in a way that its initial appearance did not. Loss aversion is among the most powerful forces in our politics. If Democrats’ internal wrangling over the reconciliation bill carries on into December — and the expiration date on the monthly child benefits draws near enough to attract the media’s notice and voters’ awareness — it at least seems possible to me that Biden would secure political benefit from a high-profile fight about whether those payments should continue.

Finally, passing a large spending bill will help shore up economic growth ahead of the 2022 and 2024 elections. This is really the strongest argument for why good policy is still good politics. Voters might not reliably reward progressive policy change, but they do generally still view incumbents more favorably when macroeconomic conditions are good. The most recent consumer-price-index data suggests this year’s inflation is transitory and that high unemployment is our economy’s primary malady. Regardless of whether Democrats pass the $3.5 trillion spending bill, next year will witness a reduction in the government’s direct contribution to economic expansion. Unlike the president’s front-loaded and deficit-financed American Rescue Plan, the impending legislation doles out its funding over a ten-year period and offsets the bulk of its new spending with taxes. Thus, even if the bill passes, the economy will receive less fiscal support in 2022 than it did in 2021. Nevertheless, if Democrats do not pass any further spending bill, the “step-down in fiscal support to growth” will be considerably larger, according to economists at J.P. Morgan.

None of this is to say that passing Biden’s agenda will save the Democratic Party’s control of Congress. It seems unlikely that anything can do that. Republican gerrymandering alone might be sufficient to erase Nancy Pelosi’s slim House majority. But even in completely amoral political terms, “building back better” is preferable to the alternative.

Can Joe Biden Build Back a Better Approval Rating?