How Biden can correct the course in his second year

Amid a stalled legislative agenda and sagging approval ratings, President Joe Biden held a formal news conference last week for only the second time in his presidency.  

President Biden has the lowest approval rating of any recent president at their one-year mark aside from Donald Trump, according to a recent Gallup poll, which found that just 40 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s job performance, while 56 percent disapprove.   

Among other topics covered on Wednesday, Biden defended his administration’s accomplishments, attacked Republicans for their obstructionism and blind deference to Donald Trump and spoke of his intentions to pass his stalled Build Back Better agenda in chunks, rather than as one large package.  

The president also acknowledged the decline in his popularity, suggesting that the drop was partly because Americans have seen him act more like a senator, rather than a commander-in-chief, during the Build Back Better negotiations: 

“The public doesn’t want me to be the president-senator,” Biden said. “They want me to be the president, and let senators be senators.”  

To be sure, Biden is correct in saying that voters do not want to see their president wrangling members of his own party — as a senator would — to pass legislation. He is also justified in calling Republicans out for their persistent obstructionism.  

That being said, his assessment of his declining ratings overlooks manifest realities, and his attacks on Republicans are largely counterproductive to achieving his political goals.  

Voters have turned on Biden because they feel he has disregarded the mandate he was elected to fulfill. Americans are clearly frustrated with Biden’s unsuccessful — albeit unwavering — efforts to advance a progressive agenda that is both beyond his political means and not designed to address the public’s immediate needs and anxieties.  

Biden campaigned as the most moderate Democrat in the 2020 primary field. And during the general election, Biden sold himself as a unifier and a problem-solver who understood the struggles of ordinary Americans. He promised to lead with empathy in order to bring Americans together around a moderate — but also forward-looking — common-sense agenda.  

Yet, during his first year, Biden has tried to govern as if he were a modern-day Franklin Delano Roosevelt: a transformational president with a mandate to enact bold change. In this quest to be transformational, Biden has regrettably overlooked the everyday ‘kitchen-table issues’ that impact Americans’ everyday lives.  

An important note: Many of the policies in Biden’s ambitious Build Back Better agenda are meritorious, and should be voted on by legislators on an individual basis. However, right now, many Americans are looking for their president to show that he understands their frustrations, and for their government to meet their basic needs: controlling soaring prices, having a clear public health directive on the pandemic, lowering crime and keeping schools open.  

Beyond the wariness that many voters may feel toward Biden for reneging on his campaign promises, practically speaking, one cannot govern as a modern-day Franklin Roosevelt or even Lyndon B. Johnson with razor-thin congressional majorities and an approval rating in the low 40’s. During the mid-to-late-1930s when much of F.D.R.’s New Deal was passed, Democrats controlled more than 300 House seats, and as many as 76 Senate seats — a far cry from the party’s current majorities.  

Biden’s and the Democratic Party’s failure to operate based on this reality was the driving force behind the demonstrable swing toward the G.O.P. in the 2021 elections in Virginia, New Jersey and New York and is poised to be the party’s downfall in this year’s midterms.   

Democrats’ prospects in this year’s elections are worryingly deteriorating. In just the last year, U.S. political party preferences shifted 14-points in the G.O.P.’s favor — going from a 9-point Democratic advantage at the beginning of 2021 to a 5-point G.O.P. edge at the end of the year, per tracking by Gallup. 

As a result, Biden has been ramping up attacks on Republicans in recent weeks. At Wednesday’s press conference, he cast the G.O.P. as being beholden to and intimidated by former President Donald Trump:  

“Did you ever think that one man out of office could intimidate an entire party where they’re unwilling to take any vote?” Biden asked.  

On one hand, Biden is right in calling out Republicans both for their obstructionist tactics and for their deeply disturbing acceptance of Trump’s “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from him. However, there is a fine line that any president needs to walk between criticizing the minority party when the situation warrants reproach but doing so in a way that doesn’t put off swing voters as well as moderate voters from that party. While Biden’s blanket attacks on the G.O.P. might rally the Democratic base, they also alienate the 74 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump in 2020.  

Moreover, Biden’s harsh rhetoric toward Republicans leading up to the midterms will ultimately ring hollow unless voters feel that Democrats represent a viable and legitimate alternative.   

Thus, as Biden enters his second year in office, the president needs to find his way back to the persona and platform he campaigned on: an empathetic and even-keeled problem-solver who can unite Americans around a common-sense agenda.   

Though Biden is adopting our previous advice by breaking the Build Back Better agenda into separate components, the president can and should do more to find common ground with Republicans on key agenda items such as immigration — as he did with the bipartisan infrastructure bill — rather than doubling-down on divisive partisan rhetoric.   

Absent such a course correction, Biden’s ratings could continue to drop, and Democrats are more likely to be brought down by Republicans in 2022.   

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to former President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. He is the author of “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.” Zoe Young is vice president of Schoen Cooperman Research.

Tags Build Back Better plan Democratic Party Donald Trump Joe Biden Joe Biden Michael Bloomberg Political parties in the United States Politics of the United States Presidency of Joe Biden Presidents of the United States

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