Democrats' months of dithering are sandbagging Biden's popularity
Voters respect decisive leadership. Democrats are flailing.
President Biden's popularity is in bad shape. The FiveThirtyEight poll average has him at 43.5 percent approval, which is approaching former President Donald Trump territory — and more than 10 points down from Biden's peak in March.
Now, there are surely a number of factors behind this fall. The mainstream media had a jingoistic panic attack over U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the ongoing pandemic is horribly unpleasant and depressing. The economy is in rough shape, too. All this surely took a toll on Biden's numbers.
But it's also not a coincidence that Biden's peak popularity came after his party quickly passed the huge American Rescue Plan (ARP), or that he's now at a low point after seven months of incomprehensible Democratic dithering in Congress over his Build Back Better agenda. It shows how his party's recent lack of political virtues like confidence, boldness, and aggression has sapped his popularity. Americans like active leadership, and Biden isn't delivering, even by Democrats' generous standard for their own president.
One of the most marked contrasts between Biden and Trump is Biden's lack of zealous partisan support. Where Trump had an iron popularity floor supported by an average of 90 percent approval among Republicans, Biden has faded significantly among Democrats. His intraparty approval was at 94 percent in early April just after passing the ARP. In the most recent poll he was down to 80 percent.
Trump had his floor because the Republican propaganda machine has eliminated any substantive interest in policy in conservative voters.Whatever he did, Fox News and Breitbart made Trump out to be the hyper-macho god-emperor of the conservative movement, always crusading from victory to victory.
Democrats have higher expectations. Speaking personally — as someone well to Biden's left who nevertheless recognizes his original, full-priced agenda as a big step forward — it's been a profoundly demoralizing seven months. Watching the party twiddle its thumbs trying to make sense of the erratic and self-contradictory garbage coming out of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to get something worth passing through Congress is both boring and maddening. The party has burned up nearly half of a precious congressional majority flopping around having pretend discussions about pretend objections while Republicans prepare to overturn democracy and reinstall Trump as president-for-life.
And it's not just me. The Washington Post reports Black activists in Georgia who helped deliver the presidency and the Senate majority to the Democrats are losing their patience. "Black men are pissed off about the nothingness that has happened," W. Mondale Robinson, founder of the Black Male Voter Project, told the Post. "Does it make the work harder? It makes the work damn near impossible." The Week contributor Michael Arceneaux made a similar case about Biden on Wednesday.
It makes perfect sense. These folks emptied their wallets and wore out their shoes knocking doors for a party that loudly proclaimed democracy itself was on the line. So far, they have nothing to show for it except a rescue bill less generous than what Trump signed in 2020. The big layup policies that poll at nine to one approval, like allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices with despised pharmaceutical companies, are steadily being sliced out of the package by the party's own corporate stooges, like Sinema and Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.).
What Democratic leadership is ignoring is the social and theatrical aspects to politics that aren't captured in the sterile data nerd mindset currently fashionable among elite liberals.
When a political party confidently seizes the initiative to pass a strong agenda, its party rank and file is emboldened and encouraged, and it takes on an air of success and vision. Of course, it's possible to go too far with bad ideas (see: the Trump tax cuts), but if the policy is good — like the ARP — a positive momentum begins to build. All that is doubly true in times of crisis, when the public is confused, afraid, and looking for leadership.
But if a party looks like a pack of feckless, timid cowards who can't even agree if they want to do anything, let alone what to do precisely, the base is demoralized. The party takes on an air of weakness and failure. The opposition is emboldened, suspecting the party is too chicken to stand up for itself. As Brian Beutler writes, "Lumbering about in a state of perpetual indecision is one of the most politically costly things a governing party can do with its precious time in power."
Now, a large fraction of Democrats' problems here come from our anachronistic 18th-century Constitution. It is exceptionally difficult to get things through the House and the Senate (especially with the filibuster) and the president and the Supreme Court. If we had a proper parliamentary system, Democrats would be having a much easier time of it.
But a lot of the delay and failure in the negotiations around Biden's agenda are of Democrats' own making. The party is craven, indecisive, passive, and, yes, in disarray.
If Biden's approval numbers don't improve, Democrats will be wiped out in the 2022 midterms. They'll be locked out of power for a decade, at least. The quickest way to reverse the damage would be to stop screwing around and pass the Biden agenda, but it remains to be seen whether party leaders can manage it. Their weakness will self-perpetuate if it doesn't end soon.