The Memo: Biden seeks a secret weapon — GOP voters

President Biden says he is winning over Republican voters even as he runs into a wall of GOP opposition on Capitol Hill.

The president has a strong case to make on the COVID-19 relief bill, which scores very highly in opinion polls. But whether Biden can replicate that level of support as he moves onto other issues is much more doubtful.

The White House believes he can. 

Allies talk up the potential to rally voters around the need for infrastructure spending, which is Biden’s next legislative priority. 

And they say that even on hot-button issues, incremental measures have consensus backing.

Ideas like an assault weapons ban and universal background checks are broadly popular even as the topic of gun control remains divisive. 

There is strong public support for helping the so-called Dreamers — people without authorization who were brought to the United States as children — even as immigration in general stokes partisan passions.

But there is still reason to be skeptical of Biden’s argument that he is selling GOP voters on his overall direction. 

COVID-19 is a one-of-a-kind issue. The relief bill’s popularity is plainly tied to the disbursement of $1,400 checks to millions of Americans, an unusually direct example of government providing assistance to voters.

That does not necessarily mean the popular approval Biden has seen on that score can be carried over to other issues.

“My guess is that what most people know about the COVID bill are the $1,400 checks. Free money seems pretty popular — [then-President] Trump was supportive of it too during the Georgia runoffs, which actually put the two Republican candidates in a pickle. However, I’m not sure that it means anything larger for Biden’s future prospects,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. 

“By the time the midterm comes around, my guess is that other things will be on the minds of voters — who knows what those things may be, but they likely will be things that play more into partisan sensibilities,” Kondik added.

Biden is seeking to tell a different story — one in which Republican voters are willing to give him more of a chance than the recalcitrance of their elected representatives in Washington would suggest. 

Zero Republicans in Congress voted for the COVID-19 relief bill — officially known as the American Rescue Plan Act — but approval of it topped 70 percent in some polls.

“I’ve not been able to unite the Congress, but I’ve been uniting the country, based on the polling data,” Biden told reporters at his first formal press conference last week.

During the same event, he largely dismissed criticism from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that he has not been reaching out enough to Republican office-holders.

“I would expect Mitch to say exactly what he said … I would like elected-Republican support, but what I know I have now is I have electoral support from Republican voters,” Biden said. “Republican voters agree with what I’m doing.”

But, beyond COVID-19 relief, do they?

In an Economist-YouGov poll conducted March 20-23, 50 percent of adults approved of Biden’s job performance while 41 percent disapproved. It’s a very solid performance — and significantly better than Trump ever did during his four years in office.

But it doesn’t suggest a tsunami of popularity for Biden that is going to transform a polarized nation.

There are other reasons for caution too.

In the most recent Gallup poll, conducted March 1-15, just eight percent of Republicans approved of Biden’s job performance, even though he was buoyed by overwhelming approval from Democrats (94 percent) and a decent showing among independents (50 percent).

Former President Obama was registering far higher backing among Republicans at the equivalent point in his first year. Twenty-seven percent of GOP voters approved of Obama’s job performance in mid-March 2009, according to Gallup.

That shows just how steep a mountain Biden has to climb — especially given that Obama got more and more bogged down by Republican opposition as time went by.

Some Republicans are skeptical that even the popularity of the COVID-19 relief bill will endure.

GOP pollster David Winston argued that the package included too much spending unrelated to COVID-19.

“There are a lot of things in that bill that [voters] don’t like but because they see the COVID-related pieces as critical, they support the bill. Once they hear about those other pieces, they are not happy about it,” he said.

Winston also contended that Biden and the Democrats need to take a more substantive approach if they really want a sizable segment of GOP voters to back them.

When any politician is seeking support from voters who normally back the other party, “you have to understand what their needs are and address those, as opposed to pushing a pure ideology of your party and expecting people to accept it,” Winston said.

For the moment, though, Democrats are feeling bullish about the president, his performance to date, and his understanding of the rules of the political game.

“It’s smart of him not to get wrapped in the opposition on Capitol Hill from Republicans, but instead point out that what he is doing is in fact strongly supported by large swathes of the American people,” said Jim Manley, a onetime aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“He can point to voters across the country, including Republicans, who are desperate for help.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Biden cabinet Border crisis coronavirus relief Gun control Harry Reid Immigration Joe Biden Mitch McConnell

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