The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why have Biden’s approval ratings plummeted? Look to his spending agenda.

President Biden delivers remarks promoting his "Build Back Better" agenda at the Capitol Child Development Center in Hartford, Conn., on Oct. 15. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Democrats are back in Washington this week, where they will try to make progress on their huge domestic spending bill. A recent Gallup poll shows how hard that’s going to be — and why going small best serves Democrats’ political interests.

President Biden’s victory last year, combined with January’s news that Democrats would narrowly control the House and Senate, set off speculation on the left that a new New Deal was just around the corner. Even though Biden campaigned as a centrist whose primary aim was to heal the nation’s divides, he quickly proposed a series of bills that amounted to the largest expansion of federal government spending in decades. Big government seemed to be back, big time.

There was reason to think that the American public was on board with this agenda. The Gallup poll found in September 2020 that 54 percent of Americans wanted government to do more to solve the nation’s problems. That was the highest mark ever in the 28 years Gallup had asked that question.

That poll held even more good news for progressives who favored a rapid increase in the federal government’s responsibilities: Support for government action had increased among Democrats to 83 percent, up from 66 percent in 2018. More important, bigger government was backed by 56 percent of independent voters, up from 35 percent in 2016. Because that share of independents backing increased government had been rising consistently, this seemed to be a durable change in opinion rather than a panicked response to the pandemic. No wonder Democrats were giddy over what they could accomplish even with a narrow congressional majority.

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So much for that. As my colleague Catherine Rampell pointed out last week, only 43 percent of Americans now favor expanding government’s role in national life. That’s roughly in line with the national average since the ’90s, when even Democrat Bill Clinton famously said “the era of big government is over” after being handed a shellacking in the 1994 midterms. This is not a conducive political environment for transformative, massive new government programs.

While there were small shifts against bigger government among both Republicans and Democrats in the new Gallup data, the biggest change occurred with independents. In 2020, independents favored more government by a 56-38 margin. Today, they oppose bigger government by a 57-38 margin. That’s a massive 37-point swing in one year.

Democrats should note that this is nearly identical to the shift in Biden’s support among independents since the election. The 2020 exit poll found that Biden won independents by a 13-point margin, but his job approval among this crucial demographic was a net negative 23 as of last week. That’s a 36-point shift in one year — and it emerged just as Biden’s big spending agenda began to dominate the news.

That should terrify Democrats. Many pundits have tried to explain Biden’s slide in approval as caused by short-term factors such as the surge in covid-19 cases due to the delta variant or the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. If that’s the case, then Biden’s poll numbers should rise as these events fade from public view. But the nearly identical drop in his standing and in support for expanded government among independents points to another cause: Biden’s domestic agenda itself. If that’s the case, then Biden and the Democrats face a terrible political choice over the coming weeks.

A recent CNN poll puts this dilemma in clear relief. It found that 75 percent of Democrats want Congress to pass the full $3.5 trillion bill, but only 36 percent of independents agree. This means that the ongoing battle between Democratic moderates and progressives is really a battle over how much to worry about overall public opinion and keeping power.

It is no surprise, then, that progressives are increasingly saying that the party shouldn’t worry about the next election and should pass the bigger bill, especially since history suggests Democrats aren’t likely to win the 2022 midterms anyway. That obviously doesn’t appeal much to members from swing states or districts, such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin or New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, both of whom represent regions that Donald Trump carried in 2016 or 2020. But their stance obviously carries little weight with Democratic primary voters, who overwhelmingly back a big bill. A recent poll of Arizona Democrats, for example, found that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who has backed Manchin’s efforts to pare down the bill’s cost, would lose a primary by about 30 points to any of four Democrats tested. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

These data show that Democrats now face a contest between the irresistible force of Democratic opinion and the immovable object of independents’ values. This unenviable battle has only one winner: Republicans, who will take this contest home to the bank next year.