After months of dilly-dallying, the Biden agenda is on the move. President Biden just signed into law a signature bipartisan infrastructure package that the last several presidents had tried and failed to achieve. The Build Back Better Act, Democrats’ huge social spending bill investing in families, children, housing, drug pricing reform, climate change mitigation, and tax breaks for the professional class in New Jersey, passed the House last week. And in a less-noticed development, the House and Senate also agreed last week to formally hash out their differences on the stalled United States Innovation and Competition Act, a bill designed to boost tech competitiveness with China and semiconductor manufacturing.
Each of these already is, or would be, a major accomplishment. Each of them could become law by the end of the year. And yet, the unified Democratic government in Washington responsible for moving each of these has never been quite so despised as it is right now. Sealing the deal on these achievements would give Democrats strong accomplishments to run on. But will it motivate anyone to actually vote for them?
A common refrain from Democratic politicians and pundits is that the items they are trying to pass in their ambitious agenda—universal pre-k or cutting the cost of prescription drugs, for example—are each individually quite popular with voters. But the dissonance in recent polling between the popularity of these items, and the unpopularity of the Democrats trying to pass them, is spectacular.
The most recent Quinnipiac poll found that Americans, by a 57 to 37 percent split, support the bipartisan infrastructure law, and by a similar 58 to 38 percent split support “a roughly $2 trillion spending bill on social programs such as child care, education, family tax breaks, and expanding Medicare for seniors.” A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, found that 63 percent supported the bipartisan infrastructure law while 58 percent supported “the federal government spending about two trillion dollars to address climate change and to create or expand preschool, health care and other social programs.”
Americans approve of the Biden agenda. But that is not translating to approval of Biden or of Democrats in Congress.
Joe Biden’s numbers suck. His approval rating is underwater by about 10 points, according to the FiveThirtyEight average. Those same polls I cited in which his agenda fares favorably show nauseating figures for Biden himself. His approval was 15 points below his disapproval, 38 to 53, in the Quinnipiac poll, with a much wider gap among independents. In the Post/ABC poll, Biden’s approval was at 41 percent compared to 53 percent who disapproved. The only modern president to poll worse at this point in his presidency was Biden’s predecessor.
Survey respondents tend to think that both parties in Congress are useless, incompetent, crooked scumbags, as is tradition. But in a congressional election cycle, one side of scumbags has to prevail over the other, and right now all signs point towards Republicans. In Quinnipiac, 46 percent of registered voters prefer Republicans to take over the House in 2022 compared to 41 percent for the Democrats. The generic congressional ballot question in the Post/ABC poll, meanwhile, showed Republicans with a 10-point lead, “a historically strong result for Republicans on this measure.” Keep in mind, too, that given Republicans’ redistricting advantages, Democrats have to do much better than break even on the generic ballot to even have a chance of taking a majority. These numbers foretell a wipeout.
One conclusion to make from the dissonance between the popularity of Democrats’ agenda and the unpopularity of the Democrats is that the voters are irrational babies. This is often a popular topic of conversation behind closed doors in Washington. But the dissonance has a perfectly reasonable answer, right there in the numbers, and right there in many peoples’ daily lives. Biden’s signature bills may be lovely, accomplishing things that a lot of people support in theory, but the problems they address are less immediate than the ones people are facing now.
Despite falling unemployment, the Post-ABC poll finds 70 percent of Americans “rate the economy negatively.” The University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index earlier this month fell to a 10-year low. In the Quinnipiac poll, 68 percent of Americans said “increased prices for things such as food and gasoline have caused them to change their spending habits,” and about half of Americans say they’re not finding the groceries or consumer goods they want to buy, and are experiencing long shipment delays in the ones they are able to find. The inflation and supply chain problems are extensions of the COVID pandemic, which is ongoing and continues to both kill many people while irritating everyone else in its persistence.
Following Democrats’ loss in the Virginia gubernatorial race, the moderate Democratic think tank Third Way commissioned focus groups to study what happened. The report, first obtained by Politico, is ugly, saying that voters “don’t think we’re doing anything to address the big issues (lack of workers + rising prices), and in general they just aren’t seeing the smoother ride they thought they’d get after having voted out Trump.” It continued:
Voters believe the economy is bad, and no amount of stats can change their mind (at least in the short term). Jobs numbers, wage numbers, and the number of people we’ve put back to work don’t move them. We should still talk about these (more the wage and back-to-work numbers), but we should realize that they will have limited impact when people are seeing help wanted signs all over main street, restaurant sections closed for lack of workers, rising prices, and supply disruptions. Even where things are getting better, Biden doesn’t get credit.
In other words: For months and months, Democrats have been focused on (and fighting about) their bills. And too many voters don’t understand how any of that is supposed to help them now.
It does seem, recently, that the White House has gotten the message: The infrastructure bill and Build Back Better Act aren’t going to turn—or at least mitigate—Democrats’ midterm fortunes if voters don’t also see Democrats addressing the kitchen-table issues wrought by COVID. While this wave of inflation may be transitory, transitory can still mean “a while,” and Biden has emphasized his concern for it in recent speeches and actions. He delivered a speech about rising prices on Tuesday, and is working to jawbone corporate America against profiteering off rising prices. The increased cost that most acutely colors Americans’ impression of the economy—rising gas prices—has also become a top focus for the White House. Last week, President Biden wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission encouraging it to look into whether oil and gas companies were engaging in illegal price gouging. On Tuesday, Biden announced the U.S.—in coordination with other countries—would tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. While both of these steps may be more symbolic actions to ease energy costs, the White House understands how important it is to at least be seen trying.
This isn’t to say that Build Back Better is a political boondoggle. Democrats successfully completing their major legislative feats will be most useful in the short-term in wiping away the complaint that they haven’t accomplished anything. Candidates will have big programs to run on, even if a lot of those new infrastructure projects or new benefits won’t be immediately recognizable to the naked eye. (A tip for the Senate as it considers BBB: Maybe make that out-of-pocket cap on insulin costs in the House bill start prior to 2023, which is the year after the midterms?) But no matter how well they sell these popular changes, Republicans’ will eat Democrats’ lunch next year if 70 percent of the country still thinks the economy stinks. Democrats used their majorities in 2021 to make investments for the future. Now they need to invest in saving themselves ahead of next November.