In retrospect, it’s obvious that the Democrats’ big midterm defeats under Bill Clinton in 1994 and Barack Obama in 2010 were caused in significant part by sluggish economic recoveries.
As a result, Biden has taken no chances: He pressed relentlessly for his $1.9 trillion economic rescue bill, and continues to advance infrastructure investments and other programs to speed growth and lift incomes. He will pursue these plans with Republicans if possible and, more likely, without them if necessary.
Similarly, Biden has touted his climate plan at least as much for its job-creating potential as for its environmental benefits, pushing back against conservatives who have long cast action against climate change as a drag on the economy.
A pain-before-gain policy on climate proved politically deadly when House Democrats passed their elegant but complicated cap-and-trade bill in 2009 to put a price on carbon.
Cap-and-trade or a carbon tax are rational, direct responses to the problem, but neither deals with the fears of workers in regions where the coal, oil and natural gas industries have long supported well-paying livelihoods. Biden’s priority is to make clear that he gets these worries, and the United Mine Workers of America union’s endorsement last week of “a true energy transition” suggests his approach is resonating in unexpected places.
The shaping of Biden’s climate agenda reveals the contours of his larger effort to drive a wedge into the Trump constituency. A majority of Trump’s loyalists — the most fervent Republicans, ardent immigration foes, hard cultural conservatives, gun rights zealots, racial backlash voters — will never be available to Biden or the Democrats.
But Biden is banking on his ability to use populist economics (relief checks, upward pressure on wages, a “Buy America” campaign to bring home more manufacturing work, confining tax increases to corporations and those earning more than $400,000 annually) to win back Trump voters whose dissatisfactions are primarily economic.
Biden’s proposals have thus far won support in the polls from about a third of Republicans and a substantial majority of lower-income Republicans (in the case of the relief act). Their response has allowed Biden to challenge the traditional definitions of bipartisanship — House and Senate Republican votes for his bills — that hamstrung his predecessors. Instead, Biden argues that what he is doing is good for many Republican voters, and that a significant share of them agrees.
As a result, Biden has contained hostility to his administration and left Republicans with few easy lines of attack. In polls conducted this month by Reuters/Ipsos, Economist/YouGov and Politico/Morning Consult, Biden’s approval rating averaged 54 percent. But perhaps more revealing, his disapproval rating averaged just under 40 percent. A Post/ABC News Poll released Sunday put approval of Biden at 52 percent, disapproval at 42 percent. In this very polarized era, not being hated is a major political achievement.
Because Biden is focused on what pollsters see as less divisive “kitchen table” issues, he has been able, so far, to propose a great deal of spending and take steps progressives have long supported without running afoul of more moderate opinion.
Republicans have challenged his broad definition of “infrastructure,” arguing that expanded child care and elder care do not fit into traditional definitions of the word. But, in both cases, Biden has again stressed the job-creating, income-generating aspects of his initiatives. They also happen to be popular with families with all manner of political views, particularly those with two earners working outside the home.
“The post-covid 21st century economy has to meet people where they are,” Brian Deese, director of Biden’s National Economic Council, said in an interview. Failing to provide better ways for families to take care of children and elderly parents, Deese added, will “set back the productive capacity of the economy.”
Biden’s pandemic-plus-the-economy focus has had downsides, notably in his recent mishandling of caps on refugee admissions. He clearly fears that Republicans are gaining traction on immigration. Despite the political challenges, dealing with it comprehensively remains a far better course than a series of defensive postures. And progressives are looking for more from him on health care and a permanent child tax credit expansion.
But the man who addresses the nation on Wednesday clearly knows what his presidency is about. And he can have confidence that his political strategy and the substance of what he is doing are mutually reinforcing.