The Memo: GOP attacks bounce off Biden
The Republican Party has a problem: Its attack lines against President Biden aren’t working.
Biden’s approval rating stood at 63 percent in a new Associated Press/NORC poll released Monday. Former President Trump never got above 50 percent in major polling averages.
Biden is given even higher marks for his performance on the biggest issue facing the country, the COVID-19 pandemic. Seventy-one percent of adults approve in the AP/NORC poll.
The GOP’s dilemma will be sharpened when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) join their counterparts in Democratic leadership for the first meeting between Biden and the congressional “Big Four” at the White House on Wednesday.
McConnell and McCarthy’s base is fervently opposed to the president, but the rest of the country is not. Ninety-one percent of Republicans disapproved of Biden’s job performance in a CNN/SSRS poll released at the end of last month, but 93 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of independents gave him the thumbs up.
The GOP leadership faces a choice between sounding a conciliatory tone with Biden and risking the fury of their base, or striking a harder line and looking like obstructionists in the eyes of many other people.
“The Republicans are in a bind because the base is very powerful, but exactly how big is that MAGA base?” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. “Republicans have to work out, what can we use as a lever for the more average American — not Democrats, not the Trump base, but whatever part of the public might have a semi-open mind.”
Internal ructions complicate the picture further for the Republicans.
On Wednesday, the House GOP will vote on whether Trump’s arch-critic Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) should maintain her No. 3 leadership position. It is near-certain that the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney will lose her spot.
McCarthy, who defended Cheney during a February heave against her, has backed her challenger, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), this time around.
Vital though the battle over Cheney may be to GOP House members and the Trump base, it’s hard to see its salience for most voters. The electorate has a habit of punishing parties that prioritize internal blood-letting over policy solutions.
Biden, meanwhile, has been pushing to make the most of his political capital at a time when consolidated Democratic control of Congress is sustained by wafer-thin majorities.
His $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, passed in March, was popular. States and local governments will this month get their first allotment of money under that legislation, which could boost Biden’s standing further.
The president’s push for massive infrastructure spending — a total of about $4 trillion, combining traditional priorities like roads and bridges with social infrastructure such as better child care and tuition-free community college — is not guaranteed to succeed. But politically, it places Republicans in the position of arguing that people should not receive things — such as tuition-free community college — that they want.
A Pew Research Center poll last year put the share of adults who would support tuition-free public college at 63 percent, for example. Biden’s proposal is more modest, aimed at community colleges only.
Republicans, as well as the conservative media, have argued against Biden’s proposals on the basis that he is expanding the reach of government. In doing so, they say he is cutting against American cultural traditions of rugged individualism and the free market.
After Biden addressed a joint session of Congress for the first time as president last month, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said he had outlined a “socialist vision for our country.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial board has complained that Biden’s $1.8 trillion American Families Plan amounts to a “tripling down on a welfare state that disdains the dignity of work and seeks to make Americans the wards of government.”
But Biden has several shields against those arrows.
Firstly, it’s not at all clear that an electorate reeling after a decade bookended by the Great Recession and the coronavirus pandemic has an aversion to expansive government.
In an NBC News poll released late last month, 55 percent of adults said “government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people.”
Second, the “socialist” attack seems to depend upon persuadable voters forgetting what they were told by Trump during the 2020 election campaign — that Biden was enfeebled and “sleepy” — and instead reimagining him as a fire-breathing radical.
Third, representatives of both parties tend to acknowledge that Biden is simply better liked than other prominent Democrats, notably 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton. As such, he is not an easy target.
“On a personal level, I think he connects with the average person, his foibles and follies notwithstanding,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas-based GOP strategist. “In some ways, he reminds me a little of [former President] George W. Bush — he’s kinda likable, even though you may disagree with his policies one way or another.”
To be sure, plenty could go awry for Biden, who has not even reached his four-month mark in power.
If the economic recovery was to sputter, it seems sure that his approval ratings would lose their sheen. Critics of his spending proposals worry about inflation.
Republicans also contend that relatively generous unemployment benefits are fueling a labor shortage — something that could be a serious Achilles’ heel for the president.
“I think that is an issue Republicans can win on, because a lot of the small-business owners who are the backbone of the party are going to be open to a message on that,” Steinhauser said.
Skeptics contend Biden’s support is broad but not deep, arguing that though he is not strongly disliked he is not ardently adored either. And there is always the possibility of some unexpected crisis emerging out of nowhere to throw him into a tailspin — the kind of prospect of which this week’s Colonial Pipeline hack was an uneasy reminder.
For now, there is only one gaping vulnerability for Biden: immigration.
His poll ratings on that topic are much lower than on any other. The situation at the southern border looks, for now, to be less chaotic than it was a month ago, but it is far from resolved. And immigration remains one front in the powerful culture wars that can drive voting behavior.
Still, immigration alone seems like a fairly thin reed for the GOP to critique an otherwise popular president.
Things can change fast in politics — especially if the country hits speed-bumps on the economy.
But for now, Biden has the clear upper hand over his opponents.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.
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