It’s been one year since Joe Biden’s inauguration and many are evaluating his performance.
In one such analysis, New York Times reporter Nate Cohn argued that “Biden was supposed to be FDR. Instead, he's following the playbook of the last half century of politically unsuccessful Democratic presidencies, from LBJ and Clinton to Obama.”
Cohn went on to claim that Biden’s ostensible lack of success was due to an over-commitment to Democrats’ “activist base,” an inadequate focus on the economy and a disconnect from the issues facing the American public at large.
This analysis is spurious on multiple levels.
First, the denotation of “unsuccessful” in this analysis is unclear.
Are we talking about legislative achievements, popularity, or both? Either way, LBJ, Clinton and Obama all had victories in domestic policy.
LBJ passed the Great Society and the Civil Rights Act. When Clinton left office, the economy was booming and the United States had a surplus. Obama brought the country out of a recession and passed extensive healthcare reform, ultimately expanding insurance to millions of Americans.
So the premise that Johnson, Clinton and Obama were unsuccessful seems a bit shaky, but what about Joe Biden?
In his first year as president, Biden passed two large pieces of legislation: The American Rescue Act (ARPA) and the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill (BIF). For some reason, analysts seem to consider these pieces of legislation unimportant.
Perhaps ARPA gets neglected because it’s viewed as an emergency measure intended to address the bleeding wounds inflicted by the pandemic.
But ARPA was, in fact, a pretty big deal.
The $1.9 trillion legislation provided financial assistance to citizens and small businesses. The childcare tax credit helped American families in the working and middle classes, and mitigated childhood poverty. School funding and the extension of unemployment insurance likely saved many American lives, as well as mitigated economic harm. The American economy also recovered more quickly than the economies of other developed countries.
Cohn’s memory-holing of the infrastructure bill – BIF – is equally strange. Our nation languished for decades without a substantial investment in infrastructure.
Such investment was so desperately desired that former President Trump frequently declared it to be “infrastructure week” to distract from various scandals. The term subsequently entered the lexicon as a metaphor for hollow, manipulative rhetoric about non-existent policy.
Then Biden came along and did what Trump proved incapable of: He passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. The bill not only enjoyed massive public support, but was also broadly endorsed by unions representing diverse groups of American workers, from truckers to farmers to civil engineers.
Yet, for some reason, both analysts and the public seem to have forgotten this historic legislation even exists.
This may be driven by the fact that infrastructure is popular and uncontroversial. The majority of Congressional Republicans voted against the bill, but they also refrained from waging a public battle.
Infrastructure was thus not very spicy, so the press didn’t cover it as a Biden victory and it has faded from public memory.
Thus, in this case, the popularity of Biden’s agenda may also render this same agenda foggy in press coverage and public consciousness.
Underestimating Biden’s achievements is not the only area where Cohn’s analysis falters.
Cohn also claims that, “Biden’s efforts have shifted from the pandemic and the economy” and decided to “prioritize the goals of his party’s activist base over the issues prioritized by voters.” These choices, according to Cohn, are responsible for Biden’s waning favorability.
This analysis is spurious.
ARPA, BIF and BBB are all bills focused on the economy. ARPA protected businesses, workers and ushered in a relatively swift economic recovery. BIF was hailed as a historic investment in infrastructure, providing funds for bridges, roads, environmental clean-up and broadband internet.
BBB is equally economically focused. The investments in climate change mitigation will save money. Further, both BIF and BBB address long term inflationary effects and could create hundreds of thousands of jobs.
These factors led the Brookings’ institute to declare: “America finally has a generation-defining infrastructure bill — and if the reconciliation budget comes through, too, America will begin a building spree larger than what happened during the New Deal.”
This doesn’t look like Biden’s not focused on the economy.
Cohn’s claim that Biden’s agenda is too catered to the “activist base” of the Democratic party is equally wobbly.
When Americans are directly polled on the provisions included in BBB, such as prescription drug prices or childcare subsidies, they express overwhelming support. Further, while voters express support for provisions like the child tax credit, only 38 percent believe Biden is responsible for this benefit.
Thus, Biden isn’t ignoring causes important to American citizens; rather, an information gap exists between Americans’ assessment of their interests and the Biden policies that address these same issues.
None of this looks like narrow catering to a leftist base; rather it looks a lot like addressing the interests of a broad spectrum of Americans.
So what’s actually going on with Biden’s favorability?
Biden’s current political situation is, in some ways, not that abnormal. One way to look at this is to compare Biden’s polling with former President Trump’s favorability during this same period in his presidency.
Whereas Biden is at 43 percent, Trump was at 37 percent at the one-year mark. In the polls, both Trump and Biden enjoy high within-party support and low support from the opposing side. Their numbers with independents are roughly similar.
However, Biden’s situation is also somewhat unique because, unlike Trump, his agenda is actually popular.
Biden’s first year is also distinct from Clinton’s and Obama’s, both of whom faced massive public backlash against their healthcare agendas, as well as highly effective Republican fear-mongering about socialism and government control.
In contrast, Build Back Better continues to enjoy broad public support. There are no public protests and Republicans have limited their attacks to concern-trolling about the cost of the bill, rather than its contents.
So what’s actually going on with Biden’s favorability?
It’s likely driven by many factors. Perhaps the public is frustrated by the stalling of BBB and uninspired by BIF. The public is also depressed by covid and worried about inflation.
Additionally, some of this might just be due to political gravity. Biden, like Trump before him, remains popular within his own party, unpopular within the opposing party, and is getting grief from independents.
Either way, though, it’s pretty clear Biden’s approval rating is not linked to opposition to his agenda, which is broadly popular.
The agenda is not too far left. It does address economic concerns. The real dynamics at play likely involve political forces over which Biden has little control, the pandemic, and critically, a lack of public awareness about Biden’s agenda itself.
Overall, it’s too soon to tell if Biden is a “successful” president.
We’re only one year in.
That said, Biden has had a remarkably successful first year. He passed two major pieces of legislation. A third piece of legislation passed the House, despite Democrats holding a narrow majority. In the Senate, the bill enjoys broad support, but is held up by the opaque interests of two people.
Is Biden winning a popularity contest with independents? No. Is he winning over the hearts and minds of Republicans? No.
But these are not necessarily the metrics by which we should judge his success.
Rather, we should ask what Biden has actually done. From ARPA to BIF, Biden has passed economically focused legislation that enjoys broad political support from citizens.
Perhaps more first-year analyses should focus on these facts.
What Biden’s more likely experiencing is a confluence of polarization, national depression and anxiety, and large gaps in public awareness of legislation. There is no evidence, though, that his agenda is out of step with the American public. In fact, all of the evidence indicates Americans endorse his plans.
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