Compare this with the tenures of Clinton and Obama. Both Democratic presidents won office with comfortable, but not landslide, wins. Their parties also controlled the House and Senate with comfortable, but not enormous, margins. Both men set to work reviving the economy, Clinton from a mild recession and Obama from the 2008 financial collapse. Both succeeded in pushing through significant stimulus measures by spring.
But after that initial success, they diverged from FDR’s playbook. Each changed their focus from economic recovery to pushing longtime Democratic priorities. They made health reform the centerpieces of their presidencies and promoted other issues (e.g., allowing gay people to serve in the military for Clinton, addressing climate change for Obama) that were not priorities for the swing voters who had empowered them and their party. The results were dire for each: Record-setting Republican midterm victories stopped their efforts to change America in their tracks.
Biden and House Democrats are pushing an even more aggressive agenda with smaller political capital. Democrats hold a thin majority in the House and control a 50-50 Senate only by virtue of Vice President Harris’s ability to break ties. Yet, Democrats under Biden, after pushing through their covid-19 stimulus bill, are signaling another lurch to the left. The House is busy passing bills that have nothing to do with the crisis that got them elected, such as their election reform bill and D.C. statehood. Biden is proposing more massive expansions of government power and spending that have more to do with Democratic priorities than aiding post-pandemic recovery.
Biden’s job approval ratings also have much more in common with his predecessors than with FDR. As of Friday morning, Biden has a 52.7 percent approval rating on the RealClearPolitics polling average. That’s a lot higher than Donald Trump’s rating was at this point of his presidency, but it’s lower than every other one of Biden’s predecessors since 1980 at this stage of their presidencies except Clinton, whose approval rating at this point was statistically identical to Biden’s. Some of this is surely due to the country’s polarized politics, but it also reflects that Biden might not be pulling new voters into his coalition. His 52.7 percent rating is only 1.4 percentage points higher than the 51.3 percent of the vote he received last November. That’s the smallest improvement over a president’s prior share of the vote of any president in decades, again with the exception of the terminally unpopular Trump.
History suggests the political outlook for Democrats is grim, should they stay on this track. Clinton’s job approval rating hovered around the 50-percent mark until the summer of 1994, with one dramatic dip in the summer of 1993. As the public focused on his priorities, however, they started to sour on him. By mid-October, the Gallup poll gave him only a 41 percent approval rating. Obama’s approval rating also stayed above 50 percent for a long time, dipping below it in May 2010. It bottomed out at a higher level than Clinton’s, about 46 percent, but that still did not prevent Republicans from gaining 63 House seats and the lion’s share of gubernatorial and state legislative races.
This should be ringing Democratic alarm bells, but instead it seems to be having the opposite effect. Biden is trying to do more legislatively, apparently on the theory that if enough change happens fast enough, Republicans can’t undo it even if they tried. It’s the political version of throwing everything on the wall and seeing what sticks.
Progressives might tell Biden to damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. As captain of the Democratic navy, Biden looks like he will take their advice. We’ll see if his moderate helmsmen among Senate Democrats are willing to go down with the ship.