Whether it’s over a grim turn in the coronavirus pandemic, yet another roadblock to his congressional agenda, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan or a supply chain crunch that’s strangling the economy, Biden’s public response is often similar — and it’s keeping him out of sight of everyday Americans whose support he needs to muster his agenda through Congress. He has fallen into a pattern of delivering short, televised speeches from one of the state rooms in the White House or elsewhere in the presidential complex.
After his $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan and $3.5 trillion spending plan failed to make it through Congress earlier this month, Biden vowed to travel the country to sell Americans on his vision. He has made several recent trips — to Michigan to tout large-scale investment in the economy and to Illinois to push his spending plans and vaccine mandates — and he’s off to Connecticut on Friday. But there’s no sign of a barnstorming coast-to-coast presidential tour or a relentless daily coordinated messaging push to shake Democrats out of the schism over his agenda that is raising doubts about the party’s capacity to lead. As he tries to coax two moderate Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, to deal with frustrated House progressives, the President has failed to do what would help him most: drum up popular support needed to make a deal.
Biden’s lack of visibility worked better than anyone expected during the 2020 campaign, when he largely stuck to choreographed, virtual events during the first year of the Covid-19 crisis. His statesmanlike appearances contrasted with wild, super spreader rallies held by then-President Donald Trump that were key to alienating moderate, independent and suburban voters who helped decide the election. Early in Biden’s presidency, the contrast with Trump and Biden’s restrained leadership produced a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 rescue plan to crown his first 100 days.
But with the economy struggling to get Americans back to work after the Delta variant powered a resurgence of the virus, many Americans battling against inflation, and his own approval ratings ebbing after remaining consistently strong early on, it’s fair to ask whether the President’s method is beginning to wear thin.
Biden made clear all along that after the tumult of Trump’s term, he wanted to restore the dignity of his office. Unlike Trump, he feels little need to assault the American psyche 24 hours a day. If he manages to finally pass the spending bill and the infrastructure package, he will have twin pillars of what could be an impressive domestic legacy. If the economy finally shakes off the pandemic next year, his fortunes could rise.
But there is a growing sense of drift, especially on the legislative agenda as progressives and moderate Democrats feuding over the make-up of the spending plan seem no closer to agreement. If the impasse lasts much past the end of the year, it would hamper Democratic candidates who need a strong record to present to voters in midterm elections that are historically brutal for first-term presidents.
And warnings by key lawmakers — and a new poll by CNN — suggest that even after months of debate, many Americans don’t know what is in the massive Biden congressional agenda.
“There is a messaging problem and we keep trying to move it right back to, what are the elements that we are talking about?” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said on Wednesday. In an appearance on CNN’s “Newsroom,” the Washington state Democrat listed measures including universal child care, affordable housing, hearing and dental benefits for seniors and lower prescription drug prices. “The minute you tell somebody that that is what in there, they go, ‘Oh, well that would make a transformational difference for me,'” she said.
New poll has bad news for Democrats
A new CNN/SSRS poll released on Wednesday found that only 25% of Americans believe their family would be better off with the passage of Biden’s $3.5 trillion social spending bill and a $1 trillion infrastructure measure. Some 32% said they would be worse off and 43% say that they would be about the same. Majorities of key constituencies of the Democratic coalition — including independent women, Black people, Latinos, and those younger than 35 — say they would not be affected by these bills.
Biden has played an intense behind-the-scenes role in trying to bring Democrats together to finally pass hugely ambitious bills to reshape the economy to favor working Americans. The bipartisan measure would mend roads, bridges and transportation systems. The bigger proposal, opposed by the GOP and likely to be scaled back to appease moderate Democrats, would provide universal Pre-K, improve home health care for sick and elderly Americans, add hearing and dental coverage to Medicare and transform the economy to battle global warming.
The White House often points out that key ingredients of Biden’s plan, like expanding health care, overhauling infrastructure, and enhancing paid leave and access to college, are popular when they get their own turn in the spotlight. But so far, the go-big approach is not working.
“Most voters could not tell you what is in these bills,” Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster and strategist, said on “The Lead with Jake Tapper.”
“It’s not because they are dumb. It’s not because they are lazy. It’s because Democrats have done a horrendous job of messaging about them.”
The difficulty Democrats have experienced in teasing out the purpose of the spending bill, especially, has focused the political fight in Washington on top-line costs. That has played into the hands of moderate Democratic senators like Manchin and Sinema. It has also offered an opening to Republicans who are already running a midterm election campaign partly rooted in their claims of out-of-control “socialist” spending by Democrats. That’s why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stresses that it’s time for her party to focus on the content of the spending bill and not its dollar figure.
One ray of light for Biden
Confusion about the programs revealed by the CNN poll may also reflect the disinterest of voters in weeks of inside-the-Beltway haggling over the proposals. Some Democrats have blamed the media for focusing on the drama of the battle in Congress, pitting factions of the party against one another. Yet mainstream media outlets have carried plenty of information about the contents of the bills. At some point, it becomes incumbent on the political party trying to pass the bills to sell them.
While some observers were shocked at the audacity of the Biden proposals when they were stacked up together, individual details were often touted in his 2020 campaign speeches and on his website. So he can argue that he built his presidency on passing them. But to get their priorities through, presidents have to spend the capital they won on the campaign trail and replenish it while in office — a much harder task.
So far this month, Biden made that Michigan trip on October 5, visiting the district of vulnerable Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin. A later visit to Illinois was mainly to promote vaccine mandates. He has addressed the benefits of his programs from the White House in televised events. For instance, in a speech on Wednesday responding to the supply chain crunch that is spiking inflation and hurting the economy, Biden said: “I’m pushing for a once in a generation investment in our infrastructure and our people with my infrastructure bill and my Build Back Better Act.”
“These bills would transform our ports, there’s … billions of dollars for ports, highways, rail systems that sorely need upgrading and would bring products faster with more efficiency from the factories to the store, to your house,” Biden said.
Biden is not the first president to be accused of falling short on the sales job. His former boss, President Barack Obama, faced similar criticism as he struggled to pass the Affordable Care Act and Democrats in Congress suffered a bloodbath soon after. But in subsequent years, that law became more popular as Americans began to experience its role in their lives. Many Democrats believe that something similar could happen to the Biden — if his agenda passes — and that it will prove so popular that future Republican Congresses will have no option but to keep many of its proposals.
There is one notable bright spot for Biden in the CNN poll. His approval rating is still at 50% — higher than in some recent surveys after a tough summer that featured a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and a raging resurgence of the Delta variant of Covid-19. That’s not great for an incumbent heading into a midterm election year. But it’s not disastrous given the stark divides in the country. And it suggests that the President does have some political juice left to build support for plans that will define his legacy.