Maybe Biden's Presidency Isn't Over?
Media, legislation, and elections operate on different calendars
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It’s been a bad few months for Joe Biden. Withdrawing from Afghanistan was messy, COVID and associated economic problems are still here, and his agenda is languishing in Congress. It’s reflected in his approval ratings, which most polls have in the 40s. FiveThirtyEight’s average shows Biden approval was net positive until late August and has been net negative since.
The result is proliferating perceptions of a failed presidency: nervous Democrats, excited Republicans, and a lot of “Dems in Disarray” stories. Democrats bristle at that cliche, but they’ve missed deadlines they set themselves, and they’re sniping at each other in public, so it fits.
A lot of this is driven by media horserace narratives. Political drama is entertaining, like a reality show with real world consequences, and there isn’t much drama in weeks of headlines like “Congress Still Negotiating Big Bill.” In particular, the day-to-day story of the presidency is more exciting when told like the campaign, where he’s constantly up or down, and often on the verge of losing it all.
When it comes to legislation, they used to say “don’t watch the sausage being made.” But political media loves the sausage-making, and political professionals and observers want them to cover it. That creates a day-to-day narrative of winning and losing, typically measured by polls.
But presidential approval isn’t score-keeping. No one gains or loses anything when it goes up or down. It provides some information, taking the temperature of the public at a given moment, but it’s ephemeral, and subject to the uncertainties of polling. It can help predict future elections, but it’s only one factor, and has less predictive value further from Election Day. George HW Bush was in the high 60s at this point in his presidency, cracked 90 percent approval after victory in the Gulf War, and lost reelection. Barack Obama was in the low 50s at this point, averaged 49 percent approval in his first term, and won reelection. Obviously the president’s party would prefer going into midterm elections with higher presidential approval, but it’s hardly decisive.
Donald Trump never cracked 50 percent, and stayed in a narrow band his whole term, between the mid-40s and high 30s. In 2020, he won 46.9 percent of the vote, higher than his approval ever reached in FiveThirtyEight’s average, which indicates that some Americans who tell pollsters they disapprove of a president end up voting him when they see the alternative. The left and right edges of Biden’s electoral coalition likely disapprove of his approach to policy, but almost all will remain gettable when he or his successor face a Republican in 2024.
Media professionals and political consultants treat the daily ups-and-downs as important, but the Biden administration doesn’t seem to care. And that makes pundits and politicos freak out more. But Biden’s presidential campaign refused to operate at the pace of Twitter, ignoring or rejecting recommendations to speak in public more, or to directly address every event (or Trump comment) in the media’s momentary spotlight. Instead, they operated on the electoral calendar, and won.
The White House appears to be doing something similar now, operating at the pace of legislation and elections, rather than the day-to-day of media. In doing so, they’re trying to navigate these strategic circumstances:
Getting legislation through a 50–50 Senate is difficult. Republicans oppose big parts of the president’s agenda, and can block it with the filibuster. But reconciliation gives an exception for a budget bill once a year, which means Democrats can’t do new regulations, but can still do a lot via taxes and spending. The one big piece of legislation during the Trump presidency was a tax cut that the Congressional Budget Office estimated would add $1.9–$2.2 trillion in debt. It passed 51–49 via reconciliation.
Needing all 50 Democrats in the Senate, and almost all the Democrats in the 220–212 House, means they can’t do a bunch of smaller bills. Various things that matter to subsets of Democrats have support from most, but not all of their caucus. Republicans might vote for a few things — as 17 voted for infrastructure spending in the Senate — but many will be party-line votes, and removing the most popular measures makes the overall package less attractive. Putting everything in one bill gets everyone invested in it, holding the coalition together.
The Biden administration wants to pass its entire agenda, including childcare, community college, and climate, not just roads and bridges. They’ve apparently calculated that passing infrastructure alone would lead a few Democrats to declare success and oppose the rest of the agenda, no matter what they say now. By coupling the two big bills in the House, Democratic leaders are gambling that the moderates who wanted to pass infrastructure alone want parts of that package enough — and care about the party’s political success enough—that they won’t sink the whole thing.
It might all fail. Or it could end in embarrassment, with months of wrangling leading back to just infrastructure. But at the risk of making a prediction that could soon be proven wrong, I bet they get a reconciliation bill through. Progressives will think it’s much too small, Biden conservatives will think it’s much too big, and Republicans will denounce it in all sorts of ways.
But the mainstream media will call it a win. Much as they called Trump’s tax cuts a win. After all, if not getting his agenda through Congress means the president is on the ropes, with his reelection prospects all but destroyed, then passing it means he pulled a rabbit out of a hat and saved his presidency at the last minute. At least until a new storyline emerges.
I don’t know how the midterms will go — the out party usually picks up seats, but results vary — and the next presidential election is far away. But unless Democrats pass nothing for the rest of this Congressional term, I’m confident that COVID, the economy, and something that happens next year will play a bigger role in the November 2022 election than recent Democratic infighting. Even though that makes for a less exciting story.