President Biden’s approval rating has dropped precipitously, despite polls showing solid support for his proposed infrastructure investments. The problem appears to be a messy legislative process in a Democratically controlled Congress and a pandemic that stubbornly won’t subside. A chaotic exit from Afghanistan didn’t help.
President Obama experienced a similar drop in popularity at a comparable time in his first year in office. After winning plaudits for dealing with the economic crisis he inherited, Obama undertook to pass the Affordable Care Act. Republicans savaged the legislation, labeling it Obamacare, and his polls plummeted out of fears of nationalized healthcare. The Affordable Care Act eked through Congress after significant compromises, including elimination of a public option for health insurance.
Some observers speculate that Biden, like Obama, is paying the price for a messy legislative process on a major initiative. They also suggest that a majority of Americans have little idea what’s in Biden’s Build Back Better initiative, as was the case in the Affordable Care Act. Confusion and compromise only make the situation fuzzier.
Biden is also burdened by a flattening economic recovery as the Delta variant has tapped the brakes on traveling, eating out and returning to the office and supply chain disruptions contribute to inflated prices. The persistence of the pandemic and choppy recovery contradict Biden’s pledge to manage the virus and return to normalcy. Voters generally support US withdrawal from Afghanistan, but criticize how Biden handled the exit. His competency at managing major issues is being questioned.
Despite their repeated efforts, congressional Republicans haven’t succeeded in bashing Biden’s initiative as effectively as they did Obamacare. While health care reform was a vote-winner in the past two elections, the public in 2009 had a hard time understanding the nooks and crannies of the Affordable Care Act. Its popular provisions, such as making health insurance broadly available and affordable for people with pre-existing conditions, weren’t hailed until much later, allowing Republicans to gain control of Congress in the 2010 elections.
Republicans have portrayed the Biden investment initiative as too big and too expensive rather than attack individual programs viewed as popular, such as childcare, affordable housing, free community college, expanded Medicare benefits and climate change provisions. The public has a related problem – there is so much in the initiative that it is hard to focus on one or two key parts to applaud.
The bold, something-for-everybody “human infrastructure” strategy was intentional to capture the imagination and support of a wide swath of the Democratic voter base in a single piece of legislation. The strategy was appealing because it appeared like something Democrats in control of the Senate and House could do. That hasn’t proven so easy to accomplish.
Polling suggests some of the featured components in Biden’s initiative don’t rank very high as voter priorities amid continuing aftershocks of the pandemic. The extensive and popular health care provisions in his initiative almost seem buried. As Speaker Nancy Pelosi quipped about Obamacare, Democrats may have to pass the measure for voters to discover what’s in it.
Biden has been diverted from selling his infrastructure investment agenda to the public to encourage more Americans to get vaccinated to achieve national herd immunity. He also has had to cajole and plead for unity among quarreling congressional Democrats. He trooped to the Capitol for a night-time pep rally a week ago that appeared to bring a semblance of unity between moderates and progressives in the House Democratic caucus.
Disunity is not a new problem for Democrats. NPR’s Ron Elving says the Democratic Party is better seen as a “series of shifting coalitions rather than a cohesive, disciplined unit”. He adds, “That long-term tolerance for turmoil may even help to explain how this party – or at least the party label – has stuck around so long.” The Democratic Party, in its many shapes, is reputedly the longest surviving political party in the world.
While there is plenty of disunity in the current congressional Democratic caucus, the greater problem is the scarce numbers of Democrats in the House and Senate. Two Democrats out of just 50 Democratic senators are blocking the reconciliation package in the Senate. Handfuls of moderates and progressives have created gridlock in the House where Democrats hold only a slim majority. In reality, Democrats only have nominal control of Congress, especially in the Senate where it takes 60 votes to end a filibuster, which can be initiated with a simple notecard.
Democrats may have to pass the measure for voters to discover what’s in it.
While party-line votes occur in Congress, neither party’s caucuses are full of “safe seats”. Senator Joe Manchin, one of the two senators holding up Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, represents West Virginia, a state former President Trump won handily in 2016 and 2020. He is the only Democrat serving in Congress from West Virginia.
Democratic Senator Krysten Sinema of Arizona is styling herself as a party maverick, much like previous GOP Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake from her state. Some moderate House members may object to Biden’s agenda in response to constituents who are dependent on fossil fuel production.
With passage of a short-term spending extension and debt ceiling increase, Democratic leaders can breathe easier and focus on lining up the votes to approve the physical infrastructure bill and the reconciliation package. However, the clock is still ticking and there are only a few weeks to find a viable compromise and pass Biden’s legacy initiative.