the inside game

Joe Biden’s FDR Dream Hits the Rocks

It’s been a rough couple months for the 46th president. Photo: Samuel Corum/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Early in the spring of 2020, Joe Biden started talking about how much transformational systemic change he could make once he united progressives, moderates, and even a few Republicans in a righteous post-Trump reckoning. Even then, the outlook appeared difficult, maybe forbiddingly so, but certainly plausible enough to inspire hope that something genuinely big and different was coming — an FDR-size presidency, if you took him at his word.

Not quite a year and a half later, reality has intervened. Biden’s once-buoyant approval ratings slipped, then plummeted, just as his administration-defining agenda items — historically massive infrastructure and social spending proposals — have become mired in wrangling within his own party on Capitol Hill. The convergence has landed him in a state of suspended political animation that he is powerless to escape on his own.

Facing a fully polarized Congress and country, Biden may be unable to significantly shift his own image until the bills pass, while he is simultaneously unable to influence the bills’ passage without fixing his image (and perhaps not even then).

This fall has felt a long way from FDR so far, no matter how you slice it.

What makes Biden’s state of affairs all the more uncomfortable is that he knew a version of this was coming — just not this soon, or with these stakes.

When Biden started invoking Roosevelt — at first to describe the scale of challenges he would face as president and then his ambitions — he was speaking to the moment: Polling showed Biden comfortably in the presidential lead, much more so than Hillary Clinton had been four years earlier. And Democrats in several swing states seemed poised to help the party retake the Senate and ensure unified control of Washington. But in places like Maine, North Carolina, and Iowa, those polling leads proved illusory on Election Day, and in the end Democrats needed two miraculous wins in Georgia to narrowly claim their prize.

Yet when Biden assumed the job, he still held out hope that he could turn the page on the Trump years, maybe even the chapter on the post–Ronald Reagan era, and that he could use his mandate — which, sure, was slimmer than expected — to usher in a calmer, healthier, more equal age. He started that way, too even as new waves of COVID-19 began crashing into American life. He passed and signed $2 trillion worth of pandemic relief two months into his presidency, previewed an end to America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan, and introduced historically massive plans to fund a badly needed renovation of not just the country’s physical infrastructure but its social and educational programs.

Sure, his popularity would wane eventually. No one who lived through Barack Obama’s first term could have actually thought his unusually high approval ratings were going to last, or that the GOP would flail forever in its quest to find an effective anti-Biden message. He suspected, too, that most Republicans would in due course solidify in opposition to his plans. As 2010’s catastrophic Democratic midterm wipeout made clear, modern presidencies don’t include anything more than a circumscribed moment of opportunity to pass some legislative priorities before political reality — or at least baseline partisan tribalism — comes crashing down.

But what Biden didn’t expect is for it all to happen at once, or so brutally: His approval rating is now not far from where Donald Trump’s was for long stretches of his presidency — somewhere between the high 30s and mid-40s, depending on the pollster. In short, in a polarized country, he’s got his solid Democratic base on his side and not many others.

To the president and those closest to him, these troubles are the product of an unexpectedly taxing summer and an impatient public that read Biden’s campaign and early governing message as a promise that normalcy would soon return. “It was almost a harmonious convergence of the Afghan issues, the COVID issues, and the economy: The public determined that all three were going badly at the same time, and they felt kicked in the gut by that,” said Celinda Lake, one of Biden’s campaign pollsters. “They did not appreciate how hard it was going to be to get out of Afghanistan, they thought we were done with COVID, and they thought the economy was going to be miraculously smooth 24 hours after getting out of COVID.”

And his legislative crunch — while no shock after he watched Republicans block Obama’s top-line agenda for six years after he passed the Affordable Care Act, with significantly bigger Democratic majorities — has been exacerbated by a solidifying conventional wisdom that Republicans are well-positioned to win back the House and Senate in next fall’s midterm elections, which would almost certainly seal off Biden’s opening for legislative action to combat the pandemic, climate change, racial and economic inequality, or any of his other stated priorities. As that election grows closer, vulnerable Democrats may become even less comfortable siding with the White House on its grandest plans, and the president’s party may also only have one more shot at passing big-ticket items on a party-line “reconciliation” vote thanks to the Senate rules. Hence the White House’s insistence on passing as much of his $3.5 trillion plan on top of his infrastructure bill as possible, as soon as possible.

“There’s a rare window now for big, society-shifting legislative action,” said Ben LaBolt, a first-term Obama aide and his reelection campaign press secretary. “For the core components of your agenda, the clock really starts ticking after Inauguration Day. If you look at the Obama presidency, as long as Mitch McConnell is in the Senate and continues to have a significant portion of votes, your only pathway is to pivot to executive action after the core components of your agenda are passed or Republicans take control of a chamber, so you get as much done as you can, as soon as you take power.”

Democrats remain broadly confident that some version of Biden’s plans will pass, albeit in scaled-down form. But one reason the moment feels so discomfiting for the party is that no one is sure exactly what to make of the president’s polling slide. That there is a dip that kicked off with the botched exit from Afghanistan, and a general sense of malaise among the populace, seems like a consensus in national surveys. But there’s significant variety from poll to poll, and real lingering questions about which numbers to trust after 2020’s — and 2016’s — surveying fiascos. The most recent Gallup numbers show Biden at 43 percent overall approval, while Quinnipiac had him dipping to 38 — but NPR pegged him at 45, roughly even with his disapproval. This means their picture of the president’s true standing with important groups is muddier than they’d like.

Still, most Biden-adjacent pros I’ve spoken with said they trust Pew’s detailed figures most. That outfit found that while Biden had gained double-digit support among Hispanic voters between his election and July, that rise was wiped away over the summer, just as his slowly deteriorating numbers among Black voters accelerated their own slide.

But a close look also suggests his early figures may have been elevated by honeymoon-style backing that was never going to last: In March, he’d gained some backing from moderate Republicans and rural voters. So while his downward trajectory with minorities is a real cause for concern among the realists in the White House, the sheer scale of his overall dip is less of one — especially as far as his agenda is concerned. It’s hard to make the case that the tortured state of Democrats’ Capitol Hill back-and-forth over Biden’s infrastructure and “Build Back Better” plans has much to do with his political standing at all.

For one, no Republican was ever going to be all that significant in the negotiations. More relevant, though, is that most of the Democratic members slowing the current process down are not likely to be counting on Biden’s personal popularity or Democrats’ national image to save them from vulnerability in the midterms. The president is beside the point for them politically. In the view of the increasingly impatient people close to Biden, the delay is about the personal idiosyncrasies of a handful of lawmakers, especially Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who aren’t up for reelection anytime soon and prefer to distance themselves from their party anyway.

To Biden’s aides and allies tasked with passing his agenda, his approval is essentially extraneous information for the time being. Building Back Together, the outside group run by close allies and former aides to the president, has been circulating polls showing the reconciliation plan remains robustly popular. “The thing that has been absolutely impervious to these ups and downs is the popularity of these programs,” said Lake. “When these packages pass, and I think they will in some form — they need to — it’s really important for us to say, as Democrats, ‘Listen, not a single Republican, or one or two Republicans, voted for this.’”

One mid-September survey of 48 battleground House districts conducted by the firm of the president’s other pollster, John Anzalone, revealed that both independents and voters overall were significantly more likely to back candidates who supported the proposal. “Approval ratings are a snapshot in time of a headline someone reads in a week,” said LaBolt. But “no matter the dollar amount, the Biden economic agenda is popular, and if it passes they’ll have a year to communicate about it.” The minute-by-minute news coverage of Hill talks over the bills, which has focused on Democrats’ level of disarray, has been divorced from political reality beyond Washington. “The media can either follow public opinion or it can drive it; often it does both,“ LaBolt said. “And on a story like this, it does impact day-to-day approval rating. But I don’t think these stories, in this moment, affect electoral outcomes. The effect of the package itself will affect electoral outcomes.”

As negotiations drag on, plugged-in liberals have, by and large, taken some solace in the fact that while Biden’s ratings have slipped — likely portending a difficult 2022 election season overall — they remain significantly higher than Trump’s were at this point in his presidency, before his party was pummeled in the midterms; that GOP congressional leaders are far less popular than their Democratic counterparts; and that, in the wry words of Princeton political scientist Nolan McCarty in response to a bout of liberal doomsaying, “The legislative failure of his signature domestic priority is exactly why Bill Clinton was a one-term president.” (To spell it out: Biden’s still may not fail; Clinton was reelected.)

But Democrats’ exasperation is still turning into resignation because, as Maggie Haberman wrote in Politico seven years ago, “In politics, 40 is the new 50.” White House operatives concede that generalized disgust with the state of politics overall (read: even before Trump) has hardened sufficiently to make it impossible for presidential approval to ever budge below about 35 percent or above 45 or so.

The extraordinary circumstances of Biden’s first few months have faded and returned him to the baseline. “With cynicism being as high as it is right now, you’re [just] not going to see national politicians with 60 percent favorability and 60 percent job approvals anymore,” said Lake, who regularly runs focus groups of target voters. By now, though, this should surprise no one.

Except, perhaps, the president. “Ninety-five percent of Democrats agree with each other and 95 percent of Republicans agree with each other,” said Lake. “We’re not going to get any Republicans. And it’s probably disappointing to the president most of all. Because it’s not how he envisioned things.”

Joe Biden’s FDR Dream Hits The Rocks