Over the past several years, many Democrats have argued that there is a simple secret to electoral success: pass popular legislation.
President Biden tried to make this theory a reality. He passed a big stimulus plan, a bipartisan infrastructure bill, and made progress on an ambitious $ 2 trillion spending bill that was finally passed by the House of Representatives.
But so far, popular politics is not suitable for a popular president. His approval rating dropped to the mid-40s, although virtually all of his laws enjoy majority support in those same polls. Poll after poll, voters don’t seem to trust Biden with his agenda. They say he did not achieve much. They even say that he did not help them personally, although he sent direct incentive payments to most households and even more to parents.
In any case, voters say that he only made the situation worse.
The gap between Biden’s popular politics and his personal unpopularity is hard to understand. After all, voters really do care about problems. They have proven this by gradually splitting into ideologically divided parties over the past two decades. And it’s clear that presidents can be punished for promoting an unpopular agenda. Just ask Barack Obama about the post-Affordable Care Act.
But if voters often punish the president for pursuing unpopular policies, they rarely reward the president for passing legislation. Instead, voters seem to reward presidents for leading peace and prosperity – in a word, normal.
Today, Mr. Biden is not seen as chairing the long promised return to normalcy. Perhaps this will change in the coming months. But Biden’s political agenda is not expected to greatly affect his approval rating until Americans believe that the agenda answers the most pressing problems facing the country.
It is difficult to recall recent examples of voters overcoming their skepticism of the president over a popular political agenda. If anything, these are relatively unproductive Democratic presidents – such as John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton during his second term – who have avoided medium-term deceptions over the past 80 years. Even Medicare and Medicaid didn’t help Democrats in 1966 and 1968. They were defeated.
The only exception to this rule was the New Deal, which helped Franklin D. Roosevelt secure a Democratic majority. Unlike the Great Society or Obamacare, the New Deal was relentlessly focused on addressing the immediate economic crisis that affected most Americans. His famous “three rupees” were relief for the unemployed, economic recovery and reform to prevent a new depression. This fits the pattern of a society more responsive to economics than anything else.
The dominance of economics in American public opinion is one of those basic and seemingly obvious conclusions of political science that is still difficult to fully internalize. This is in part because it contradicts how most individual voters – and especially politically involved voters – think about politics. Most people support their party during the worst economic times; even the fastest economic growth will not convince them to support the president of another party.
However, the behavior of the electorate as a whole is very different from the behavior of the majority of its constituent voters.
One fact that helps to understand this pattern is that less interested voters do not think about politics nearly as deeply as the typical political activist. The typical voter may not follow politics or public policies at all.
Such a voter may say that he “supports” or “opposes” a political initiative when asked by a sociologist, but he can only have a general idea of the details of public policy. For some, a policy proposal may be nothing more than an abstraction – an abstraction that sounds good but remains largely intangible and lacks deep meaning.
In a sense, trying to convince ordinary voters to support a party or candidate on the basis of a certain political initiative is like trying to get someone to buy something that they have not actually asked for.
What are voters asking for? Well, a strong economy and jobs. It’s boring. This is not ideological. This is not what progressives can say in response to this question – things like reducing income inequality or tackling climate change. But the state of the economy is almost always the # 1 question in the polls. Usually, it fades into the background only in the event of extremely unusual circumstances or a crisis, such as a war or a pandemic.
So far, Biden hasn’t quite given voters what they asked for. Yes, economic growth has been robust and unemployment has fallen. In most cases, these numbers are likely to reflect perceptions of a strong economy. Maybe over time. But these are not entirely normal circumstances. The high numbers contradict the constant stream of reports of various economic problems, from persistent labor shortages and supply chain problems to inflation and rising gas prices. Nobody thinks that the economy is working as it should.
In a recent CNN poll, 58 percent of Americans said Joe Biden did not pay enough attention to the country’s most pressing issues, including 72 percent of those who cite the economy as the most important issue.
Unsurprisingly, the passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill also did little for Biden. According to FiveThirtyEight, on the day the bill was passed, its approval rating was 43%. Today it is still 43 percent.
A recent poll by Republican firm Echelon Insights found that 72 percent of registered voters wanted Mr. Biden’s top priority to be to contain inflation and fix supply chain problems, compared with 21 percent who prioritized new social spending. services, healthcare and green energy.
Recently, the presidency of Mr. Biden has been compared to Mr. Roosevelt and his new course. But Biden’s candidacy has been compared to an entirely different president: Warren Harding, whose 1920 “Return to Normal” campaign followed the 1918 flu pandemic, workers’ riots, World War I, and the Red Panic.
Politically, the New Deal and Return to Normal Life had nothing in common. One of these was the extensive expansion of government. Another is tax cuts. Although politicians were very different, both sought to lift America out of the crisis and benefited from sustained economic growth.
Politically, Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Harding also had something in common: they both won a landslide victory.