Biden had a clever but fraught response to this, saying that he wanted unity from the public, not necessarily from his political opponents in Congress. In other words, that he would advocate policies that most Americans supported and let Republicans join him if they wished.
In practice, of course, things are more complicated. Proposals have nuanced, devilish details that can be highlighted or picked apart. People may generally support A Big Plan but dislike A Small Element of it, undercutting the idea that the public broadly supports the proposal. What’s more, it’s not clear that the public actually agrees that Biden should act unilaterally if he has public will behind him.
The first major policy package of the Biden administration is a good demonstration of all of these patterns. Biden has indicated that his willingness to pass the coronavirus relief bill with only Democratic support (if needed) is a reflection of the broad support the bill receives in public polling. And that’s true: Most Americans generally do support the proposal.
A poll from Monmouth University released Wednesday shows that 62 percent of Americans support the measure, including one-third who say they support it strongly. (More than half of Americans say they’ve heard a lot about the proposal.)
Most Republicans oppose the bill, nearly half strongly. But, again, that’s not the metric Biden is using.
Notice, though, that Monmouth also asked whether it was worth cutting the package to gain support from Republican lawmakers. A plurality of respondents said it was — largely because of strong support for the idea from Republican voters.
But this complicates things! Biden says most people support passing it — but about half the country also thinks there’s room for compromise.
On the signature component of the bill, though, the picture again gets more complicated. Most respondents say that the $1,400 stimulus checks included in the legislation are about the right amount. That holds true across party lines, although one-third of Democrats think the amount should be larger. Asked whether Congress should compromise on this, majorities of every partisan group say no.
But this is also an expensive part of the bill, so there has been wrangling over what this support will look like. On Wednesday, the administration agreed to scale down the number of families that would receive that amount of support — a shift that came after negotiations with moderate Democrats.
This is a separate bit of complexity. Last year, when President Donald Trump and his party pushed for a relief package including large checks, moderate Democrats had tons of political cover for supporting a proposal that could be weaponized against them in future campaigns as having increased the federal debt. This time, despite the broad popularity of the checks, Republicans aren’t clamoring to join in on the effort. That exposes moderate Democrats to criticism that they went along with their party to increasing the deficit — criticism that will almost certainly emerge however insincere or hypocritical it might be. By softening the package in this regard, they have fodder to rebut such attacks, or even (if they wish hard enough) get a Republican or two to provide that cover.
Biden is worried about that only indirectly. He’s president for the next four years, although he would, of course, like to have a Senate that’s under Democratic control. So he agrees to a deal.
Monmouth’s poll also reinforces other moves from Biden in light of his “unity” comments. His administration appears to have largely accepted a procedural block to a provision of the bill that would have increased the minimum wage to $15. That proposal gets majority support in the poll — although only barely. Most Democrats support it, but that’s it.
Biden also rejected the idea of canceling $50,000 in student-loan debt last month, a proposal that Monmouth finds that most Americans oppose. But there’s much more support for canceling a smaller amount of debt, including from independents.
What’s sort of refreshing about Biden’s definition of unity is that it lays bare the machinations that always undergird the development of complex policy packages. There’s always a tug-of-war aimed at pleasing the base and dampening opposition; now, Biden simply states what intended political outcomes are.
The Monmouth poll also reveals another truism of politics: People are happy for compromise on things they don’t care about. Unfortunately for elected officials, people generally care only about those things where compromise ends up being sought.