A sobering fact Biden is learning: Good policy is not good politics
In the early days of Joe Biden’s term, clever observers had a piece of advice for the new president and his party that was repeated often: Do popular things. It was a bit tongue-in-cheek for being so obvious, but that was the point. Rather than turn his political strategy into a Rube Goldberg machine with a hundred moving parts, he should simply pursue his most widely supported objectives. That, it was said, is the only way to win, especially to prevent one’s presidency being hamstrung by a midterm election loss that gives the opposition control of Congress.
But what if doing popular things doesn’t do a president much good? What if he gets plenty of blame for everything that doesn’t go well, whether it was his fault or not, but little or no credit for what he actually accomplishes?
Over the past month, Biden’s approval rating has fallen by about six points – hardly a dramatic plunge, but enough to push him into negative territory. While it’s easy to make too much of that kind of momentary change, there’s no question that presidents with approval under 50% don’t pull off midterm miracles.
What has Biden done that caused this turn against him? The public is certainly unhappy with the withdrawal from Afghanistan – not the withdrawal itself, which was overwhelmingly supported, but the difficulties in accomplishing it. We could argue about whether it actually went any worse than anyone should have expected, but there’s no question that weeks of screaming headlines about what a disaster it supposedly was had their effect.
You can lay that one at Biden’s feet. But in other areas – where his actions have had far more of an impact on Americans’ lives – he’d be forgiven if he lamented that he gets little or no credit for the things he does right.
For instance, before Democrats passed the American Rescue Plan in March – with zero Republican votes in either house of Congress – polls showed it to be almost absurdly popular, with approval reaching into the 70s. Not only that, it gave direct, visible benefits to people, in the form of stimulus checks and the expanded child tax credit.
How much did the public reward Biden for it? Not at all. There was no surge of good will and appreciation; his approval rating before it passed was around 53%, and his approval rating after it passed was about 53 %.
We’ll almost certainly wind up telling a similar story about the infrastructure bill and the Democrats’ reconciliation bill if and when those are signed into law: The public will like the spending, but it won’t convince them that the president who forced it through is doing a good job.
The same will probably be true of his entire agenda. Democrats are often advised that because their policy agenda is widely popular with the public – majorities of whom would like to see a higher minimum wage, action on climate change, higher taxes on the wealthy, legalized marijuana, universal background checks and so on – they should move aggressively forward on all those issues without fear.
Which they should. But the seemingly logical conclusion – that if they do those popular things, the public will reward them for it – has little if any evidence to support it.
So what does make a difference? For the most part, it’s circumstances outside the president’s control. Right now, Biden is suffering mostly because the pandemic is dragging on, and that’s holding the economy back. But it’s hard to see precisely what he could have done differently to prevent that from happening.
While his administration’s effort to distribute vaccines was enormously successful, our ability to put the pandemic behind us has been hampered by the emergence of the delta variant and the project undertaken by Republican governors and media figures to discourage vaccination and undermine public health measures. They know that the longer this plague drags on, the worse it will be for their opponents.
They’re right, which highlights another important fact: The opposition’s ability to make trouble and cause chaos is sometimes more politically potent than all the institutional power the president possesses.
But more than anything else, it is circumstance that determines whether a president’s party gets wiped out in a midterm or whether he wins re-election. Yes, he can handle changes in circumstance well or poorly, but his success or failure is often out of his control, determined by accidents of fate or the things other people do. And when he succeeds, it’s seldom because he was a genius.
For instance, it is entirely possible that the threat to abortion rights will sway some voters in the middle and drive Democratic turnout in 2022, especially if the Supreme Court causes a political earthquake by overturning Roe v. Wade in its next session, which it now seems likely to do. But that won’t be because Biden and Democrats earned the country’s thanks for their efforts to protect the right the court is taking away. Indeed, at the moment the response from Democrats seems to be confined to statements of deep concern and displeasure, the functional equivalent of “thoughts and prayers” for women’s bodily autonomy.
Perhaps by next fall we’ll be fortunate enough to see the pandemic behind us, and if it is, the economy will probably be doing well. It could be that Democratic voters will be fearful enough of the reactionary future Republicans are determined to bring about that they’ll turn out in large numbers. But maybe not. In any case, Biden’s ability to make either outcome happen is marginal at best.
Among the things this tells us is that the axiom “Good policy is good politics” is simply not true. Good policy is good policy, and usually not much else. Which means that whatever circumstances put you in power, you should squeeze every policy advance out of it while you have the chance, not because it will win you the next election but because that’s the whole point of getting power in the first place.