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Biden popularity poll amid voting rights vote seems bad. But there's a silver lining.

How the failure of progressive initiatives from a vaccination mandate to the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act set Biden's White House up for a comeback.
Photo illustration: A circle with Joe Biden's image moving from the left end of a line to its centre.
The president’s first year in office was not bereft of significant accomplishments — but the Biden administration’s progressive allies have set their sights higher.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

“President Joe Biden needs a win,” observed NBC News reporter Jonathan Allen last September. Following a string of bad headlines on issues ranging from the resurgent pandemic to the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to a brewing immigration crisis, the administration was desperate for a victory. It didn’t get one. As 2021 came to a close, Biden’s ambitious legislative initiatives mostly imploded, and the courts struck down his pandemic-related executive initiatives (the eviction moratorium in September, and the private sector vaccine mandate in January). Today, approaching the end of the president’s first year in office, only the most committed partisan hacks can ignore President Joe Biden’s “losing streak.”

This negative perception is an outgrowth of the unreasonable demands the progressive left has made on this administration.

But this negative perception is an outgrowth of the unreasonable demands the progressive left has made on this administration. The president’s first year in office was not bereft of significant and popular accomplishments. In his first weeks in office, Biden signed into law a nearly $2 trillion Covid relief package and, months later, affixed his signature to the largest investment in American infrastructure in the country’s history — both of which earned significant bipartisan support in Congress.

Those achievements don’t feel especially significant because the Biden administration’s progressive allies have set their sights higher, and the White House is allergic to managing their expectations. And yet, the failure of progressive initiatives ranging from a vaccine mandate for private businesses to the Build Back Better bill and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act have set the Biden White House up for a comeback. The only question is, can the administration make the most of it?

A CBS News/YouGov survey released on Jan. 16 diagnoses the administration’s primary political malady: Namely, that voters’ priorities don’t seem to align with the president’s. Among all registered voters, the issues that matter most are the “economy and jobs,” “inflation,” and, of course, “the coronavirus outbreak.” Though Biden has tried to convince the public that his long-sought legislative agenda, which predates the current inflationary spiral and is only tangentially related to Covid, would somehow remedy those conditions, many voters aren’t buying it.

According to that poll, majorities say Biden and his fellow Democrats either “don’t care about” or only care “a little about” the issues that matter to them. Fewer than half of voters described Biden as “competent,” “focused” and “effective” today. Sixty-four percent of respondents say America’s battle against Covid is “going badly.” Fifty-eight percent add Biden hasn’t devoted enough attention to the economy. Another 65 percent say the same of Biden’s disregard for inflation — an issue on which 7 in 10 voters disapprove of the president’s performance. But when asked what would improve their opinion of the president, getting inflation under control or passing the Build Back Better bill, a staggering 63 to 24 percent sided with inflation.

And therein lies the opportunity for the Biden White House. That is, if they’re willing to take it.

Democrats spent the better part of the last six months engaged in an insular conversation among themselves over the smorgasbord of legislative reforms bundled up in the Build Back Better bill. But that discussion also often highlighted the price tag. For months after Congress carved the “hard infrastructure” out of the legislation, this reconciliation bill was known simply as the “$3.5 trillion spending plan,” the “$3.5 trillion Budget Blueprint,” or the “$3.5 trillion investment.” When you spend most of your time calling out an initiative’s cost, don’t be surprised when the public treats it like a bill they have to pay.

In October, pollsters Joel Benenson and Neil Newhouse found that 71 percent of self-identified independents agreed with the notion that Americans “will continue to pay more money on everyday expenses unless the government becomes more fiscally responsible.” That’s a reasonable connection to make amid the worst inflation in 40 years and the unprecedented injection of $6 trillion into the economy.

Try as they might, Democrats cannot talk Americans out of noticing the rising cost of consumer goods, nor can they decouple Washington’s spending frenzy from that unhappy condition in voters’ minds. Nor are they wrong to make that association, according to the San Francisco Federal Reserve, which has warned that excessive Covid relief is contributing to inflationary pressures on the economy. Congress’s failure to introduce another $2 trillion in government spending into an already heated economy is, in fact, a gift for this White House. That, and the apparent demise of the Democrats’ voting rights legislation (which is the priority of just 16 percent of the public, per CBS/YouGov), provides this president with an opportunity to pivot.

Given the administration’s makeup, which Washington Post reporter Jeff Stein observed is packed with “scores of liberal policy thinkers at its highest levels who come from the [Bernie] Sanders and [Elizabeth] Warren faction of the party,” abandoning the preconditions that the left believes constitute success will be bitterly resisted. But this administration’s efforts to mollify progressives are arousing the resentment of a much larger host. According to Gallup, voters’ party identification shifted from a 9-point Democratic advantage to a 5-point GOP lead at the end of 2021. Most of that shift occurred in the second half of the year, amid worsening conditions at home and abroad and with Democrats squarely focused on their party’s narrow priorities over the more pressing issues facing the country. If that trend continues into November, it portends a calamitous midterm election year for the party in power.

What would such a pivot look like? Maybe something like the transformation Bill Clinton’s presidency underwent. Then as now, the president spent his first year in office pursuing transformational social legislation that undermined his self-styled image as a centrist policymaker and bridge-builder. Clinton failed to read the writing on the wall in time to avert a disastrous midterm election, but the message voters were sending was received by 1995.

What would such a pivot look like? Maybe something like the transformation Bill Clinton’s presidency underwent.

With the aid of his less ideological advisers, Clinton co-opted the Republican issue set by embracing fiscal prudence, opposing racial quotas in the private sector, and endorsing a moral crusade against violence in media. His pollsters went into the field not with the goal of drumming up support for the Democratic agenda but to learn what voters actually wanted — particularly those demographics that had most soured on his administration — and crafted an agenda around their concerns. Most importantly, the Clinton White House abandoned its pursuit of big, bold reforms in favor of basic managerial competence (for example, overseeing the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing and containing a geopolitical crisis in the Balkans). The contrast with a GOP-led Congress so fractious it couldn’t even keep the government’s lights on was mighty. Bill Clinton’s makeover worked.

A smaller, more quotidian approach to the day-to-day business of managing a country mired in a prolonged crisis would go a long way toward restoring the impression in voters’ minds that they got the president they voted for in November 2020. Biden can escape the box canyon into which progressives have corralled his administration. Their failures have given the president a pathway out. All he has to do is take it.