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I’ll be blunt: Democrats are slogging through a rough first year in power. Republicans are, predictably, obstructing every Biden administration effort in a replay of their extremely effective Obama-era stonewalling tactics. But Democratic dysfunction can’t just be blamed on the contemptuous GOP; within Biden’s own party, two conservative Democratic senators have effectively frozen the president’s popular legislative agenda on Capitol Hill.
There’s a keyword in that sentence that too many Democratic bigwigs are missing: popular.
Majorities – in some cases supermajorities – of Americans support broad swaths of the Biden agenda. A recent Quinnipiac poll that put Biden’s job approval at a record-low 38 percent has left Democrats stress-eating – but the same survey found that 57 percent of Americans backed Biden’s big infrastructure and spending package, while only 40 percent opposed it. A Pew survey conducted last month found 61 percent of American adults supported Democrats’ plan to raise taxes on those making over $400,000. Even better, over half of low-income Republicans supported Biden’s call to boost corporate tax rates for megabusinesses.
In any other political environment, Democrats’ popular policies would be sailing through Congress with ease. And that’s the problem.
Democrats have more to fear from their failure to deliver on Biden’s transformative agenda than they do from a single bad poll. In fact, polling and elections experts openly question whether presidential approval ratings even matter in an era where party affiliation rallies voters behind even unpopular incumbents.
“The partisan gap between Democrats’ and Republicans’ approval in Trump’s ratings was a chasm: 82 points, the largest gap in Gallup’s history,” American Enterprise Institute Distinguished Senior Fellow Karlyn Bowman writes. “It is close to the gap in Obama’s last year in office, 77 points. It was 76 points in 2012.”
In other words, presidential approval ratings are relics from a bygone age, calibrated to a time when the persuadable voter universe was much larger and less polarized to the extremes than the world we live in today – a world in which voter disapproval is less likely to lead to split-ticket voting than at any time in modern history.
In our polarized political climate, the one thing a party can’t afford to do is to demoralize its political base. That’s because polarization cuts both ways: motivated Democrats and Republicans will support even unpopular members of their own party, but unmotivated voters will simply stay home – or worse, leverage an increasingly powerful social media machine to amplify their discontent. With elections increasingly decided by exceedingly narrow margins and Democrats playing defense in 2022, Biden can’t afford to enter next year’s midterm elections with unhappy Democratic voters.
Democrats can see that enthusiasm gap playing out in the hotly contested Virginia gubernatorial race, where former governor Terry McAuliffe is facing off against Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin. McAuliffe has openly groused about Biden’s unpopularity dragging on races like his own, but the root of the problem isn’t Biden; it’s sagging enthusiasm for a stuck Democratic agenda.
The good news is Democrats are uniquely positioned to deliver a bold, progressive agenda that excites the progressive base and enjoys strong national support. If they’re serious about achieving that, they have to start by unsticking the legislative process in Congress to deliver not only Biden’s signature Build Back Better spending package, but long-promised voting rights reforms and criminal justice overhauls as well.
And before Democrats get squeamish about taking on the police, it’s worth remembering that 95 percent of Americans support significant reforms to our policing and justice system. That’s supermajorities of both Democrats and Republicans.
To get where they need to go, Democrats will need to restructure the filibuster. The choice should be clear: never before has a governing party allowed an arcane piece of parliamentary procedure to block widely-supported and badly-needed legislative action. Forget Biden’s approval – how will voters approve of Democratic lawmakers who slouch into the 2022 campaign season having failed to deliver on almost all of their marquee campaign promises?
Barring a reformed filibuster, Biden will need to get creative about delivering change to the American people through agencies and executive orders. That isn’t ideal, but voters will exact a heavy price from Democrats if they’re perceived to be doing nothing – especially for the Black and brown voters Biden pledged in his victory speech to support, voters who now see the Democratic Party sprinting away from major issues like defending voting rights from sustained GOP attacks.
Biden’s window for leadership is rapidly closing. If Republicans achieve what many expect and retake control of one or both houses of Congress in next year’s election, Biden risks spending the rest of his term begging an obstructionist GOP for legislative scraps. Such a humiliating display will only further demoralize the Democratic base, leading to a potential Trump-led catastrophe when Biden seeks re-election in 2024.
Instead of focusing on distractions like individual approval polls, Democrats must instead look to polling trends as a mandate for their policies and values. Voters will decide to extend Joe Biden’s mandate not because they like him, but because delivered on his promises and made their lives better in the process. As the old political adage goes, the only poll that matters happens in the voting booth.