The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Daily 202: Polls find Biden broadly popular, but highlight deep doubts about democracy

with Mariana Alfaro

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As President Biden holds his first in-person Cabinet meeting today, a pair of public opinion polls find he’s the broadly popular leader of (uh-oh) a democracy a majority of Americans think is sick, beset by corrupt politicians out of touch with the people, and needing an overhaul.

The contrasting numbers hint at the steep political challenges facing Biden, who isn’t even 100 days into his presidency, and the potential lingering political potency of populist outsiders from the left or right elected to shake up the system (whether they do or not).

They also raise the stakes for the Democrat’s ambitious agenda, which is anchored on the idea that most Americans want their government to deliver a sweeping suite of services and battle social ills like racist prejudice. Biden’s newly released $2 trillion infrastructure package is a massive down payment on that approach.

For months, Biden’s aides have made clear they believe his presidency will be judged by history, or as early as the 2022 midterms based on his handling of the pandemic and the economy.

On that score, he appears to be doing well.

Not only do 73 percent of Americans overall approve of his handling of the coronavirus, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll taken last week but roughly half of Republicans do.

Biden’s numbers on the economy have ticked up since passage of his $1.9 trillion rescue package the one sending $1,400 checks to millions of Americans from 55 percent a month ago to 60 percent, the poll found.

His overall job approval came in at a sturdy 61 percent.

Sixty-two percent of Americans approve of his handling of health care. Fifty-five percent like his foreign policy. (Former president Donald Trump’s job approval never broke 50 percent).

The president’s support goes a little wobbly on issues like guns, where 45 percent approve of his approach. On the border and immigration over which Republicans have targeted Biden his numbers are 44 percent and 42 percent, respectively.

There are broad partisan divisions, of course. On foreign policy, 69 percent of Democrats say infectious diseases are a threat to the United States, while just 47 percent of Republicans say the same. And more Republicans (68 percent) than Democrats (44 percent) say they worry about China’s global influence. 

Partisan divisions play a huge role in another assessment of public opinion, conducted in November and December of 2020 and released yesterday by the Pew Research Center. But the main takeaway has to be how unhappy Americans are with, well, America.

Can American democracy make do unchanged, or with tinkering? Thirty-five percent said yes. But 65 percent said it needs a major change or a full overhaul.

Does “most politicians are corrupt” describe America? Sixty-seven percent of Americans agreed it does. (And just 31 percent said no). Republicans were more likely to say so than Democrats (78 percent vs. 60 percent). But still. 

Fifty-six percent of respondents disagreed with the statement “elected officials care what ordinary people think” and 53 percent said they were dissatisfied with the way democracy is working in the United States.

While the AP poll was conducted last week, Pew did its survey in the weeks after Biden won the election but before the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, at a time when Trump was spreading the lie he was cheated out of a second term.

Satisfaction with democracy, like so many other things, is also a partisan experience.

Republicans were more than twice as happy with the state of things from 2017 to 2019 as Democrats 57 percent versus 26 percent, respectively. After Biden won in November 2020, 50 percent of Democrats were satisfied, while just 39 percent of Republicans agreed.

The Pew survey also found 54 percent of Americans trust government to do the right thing, and 43 percent do not. That’s compared to 51 percent and 47 percent, respectively, right after Trump took office.

(The Pew survey looked at all of these numbers in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. Among its findings: Just 20 percent of French respondents said they trusted the government in 2017, but 55 percent said so late last year a remarkably volatile change.)

Trust in government is also a partisan question. Just after Trump’s inauguration, 66 percent of GOP voters and those who leaned Republican said they trusted the government, compared to 42 percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaners. After the November 2020 election, more Democrats (59 percent) than Republicans (49 percent) trust government.

In one sign populism is here to stay, the Pew poll found 79 of all Americans are somewhat or very supportive of creating citizen assemblies to make recommendations on national laws while 73 percent favor allowing citizens not Congress vote on what becomes law.

The Pew poll was done between Biden’s victory and the Jan. 6 insurrection, and attitudes have likely changed since then.

But it still lays out the challenge for Biden. Can he stay popular, and change Americans’ views of government?

What’s happening now

Americans filed 719,000 initial unemployment claims last week. The surprise increase comes a week after the tally set a pandemic-era low, Hannah Denham reports. It's another sign of the unpredictable path that economic recovery has taken during the crisis. 

Pfizer and BioNTech said their vaccine protects against the virus for at least six months after the second dose. “New data from the ongoing trial of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has reinforced early results showing its high efficacy and there are also indications it is effective against the more virulent South African variant," Erin Cunningham and Paulina Firozi report.

Virginia will expand vaccine eligibility to everyone in the state over the age of 16 by April 18. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) made the announcement this morning, citing significant progress in vaccinating the highest-risk groups, Meagan Flynn reports

Derek Chauvin’s trial entered its fourth day of testimony this morning. Floyd’s girlfriend, Courtney Ross, told the court Floyd tested positive for the coronavirus in “late March” last year. She described him as constantly active despite having chronic back pain and said he never complained of shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, Kim Bellware reports. The defense’s strategy includes the argument that Floyd died as a result of other underlying health factors. Ross also told prosecutors that the couple’s chronic pain issues led to their addiction to opioids. “It’s a classic story of how many people get addicted to opioids,” Ross, 45, said. 

And there will be no Opening Day for the Nats today: 

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Lunchtime reads from The Post

  • Some of America’s wealthiest hospital systems ended up even richer, thanks to federal bailouts,” by Jordan Rau and Christine Spolar: “Last May, Baylor Scott & White Health, the largest nonprofit hospital system in Texas, laid off 1,200 employees and furloughed others as it braced for the then-novel coronavirus to spread. … But Baylor not only weathered the crisis, it thrived. By the end of 2020, Baylor had accumulated an $815 million surplus, $20 million more than it had in 2019, creating a 7.5 percent operating margin that would be higher than most hospitals’ profits in the flushest of eras. … Like Baylor, some of the nation’s richest hospitals and health systems recorded hundreds of millions of dollars in surpluses after accepting a substantial share of the federal health-care bailout grants, their records show. Those included the Mayo Clinic, Pittsburgh’s UPMC and NYU Langone Health. But poorer hospitals — many serving rural and minority populations — got a tinier slice of the pie and limped through the year with deficits, downgrades of their bond ratings and bleak fiscal futures.”
  • How Nancy Reagan helped end the Cold War,” adapted from columnist Karen Tumulty’s new book on the former first lady: “George Shultz, only seven months into his tenure as secretary of state, had just returned from a long trip to Asia, which included a stop in China. On Saturday afternoon, as Washington began digging out, Shultz got a call from Nancy. ‘Why don’t you and your wife come over and have supper with us?’ she asked. … Nancy had planned it so that Shultz would begin to understand something important about her husband, something that had the potential to change history. ‘I’m sitting there, and it’s dawning on me: This man has never had a real conversation with a big-time communist leader and is dying to have one. Nancy was dying for him to have one,’ Shultz told [Tumulty].”
  • Backlash after U.K. race report seeks to ‘dispel myths’ about racism, tell ‘new story’ about slave trade,” by Jennifer Hassan and Antonia Noori Farzan: “Many lawmakers, activist groups and critics have branded the review of racial disparities, commissioned by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the wake of last year’s British Black Lives Matter protests and released Wednesday, ;divisive,’ ‘insulting,’ and ‘deeply cynical.’ The lengthy study, which was published by experts from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, described Britain as a model for race relations and found there to be ‘no institutional racism’ in the country.”

… and beyond

  • “ ‘Cool but weird.’ Macy’s store transformed into school,” by the AP’s Lisa Rathke: “Students who once shopped at a downtown mall in Burlington, Vermont, are now attending high school in the former Macy’s department store, with gleaming white tile floors and escalators whisking them to and from classes. … The building underwent a $3.5 million retrofit supported by the state that added partial walls for classrooms while keeping some Macy’s remnants, like the sparkly white tile floors, bright red carpeting, and Calvin Klein and Michael Kors signs and a large-scale Levi’s jeans photo on a classroom wall.”
  • “ ‘Mom is really different,’: Nursing homes reopen to joy and grief,” by the New York Times’s Sarah Mervosh: “Adriane Bower, 59, thought her mother, Angeline Rujevcan, 89, looked older, maybe a little weaker. Still, Ms. Bower said she was ‘over-the-moon happy’ just to be able to sit with her at her nursing home in Crestwood, Ill. Though they were not allowed to hug, she knew she was one of the lucky ones. ‘My mom survived,’ she said through tears.”
  • Biden's evangelical foes set aside Satan fears, cash aid checks,” by Bloomberg News’s Elise Young and Josh Saul: "In a January Bible study livestream, Virginia pastor E.W. Jackson said a pair of Georgians headed for the U.S. Senate were ‘demoniacally possessed.’… But as the stimulus checks they enabled arrive, Jackson, said his followers should have no qualms about accepting the Democrats’ largess and passing 10% to his ministry. … ‘Whenever God gives us increase, whatever the source might be, we give some to God to acknowledge that it comes from him,’” Jackson said.

The first 100 days

The White House chief of staff said the Biden administration wants to pass the jobs and infrastructure package with Republican support “if it’s at all possible.” 
  • This morning, Ron Klain defended the corporate tax increase the White House wants to use to pay for it as “good policy,” John Wagner reports.
  • “Klain was pressed on whether the White House would pursue passage in the Senate under budget reconciliation rules, as it did with Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. Doing so avoids a requirement to get 60 votes to advance the legislation. ‘We want to move forward if it’s at all possible on a bipartisan basis, and I think there’s some hope for that,’ Klain said.”
  • “Klain argued that many people thought Trump brought the [corporate] rate down too low. ‘Between 21 and 35, there’s a lot of room,’ he said, adding that the Biden White House thinks 28 percent is ‘reasonable.’”
A woman called for a highway’s removal in a Black neighborhood. The White House named it an example of inequity in its new infrastructure plan. 
  • “Since she moved back home to Tremé almost a decade ago, Amy Stelly has waged a campaign for the removal of a highway that cuts through her New Orleans neighborhood. She struggled to get support from local leaders. Neighbors considered the quest to be wishful thinking,” Ian Duncan reports. “‘Nobody thinks you can get rid of a highway,’ she said.” “From her second-floor porch, Stelly can see a ramp to the highway rising up from the street. She said air pollutants stick to her home.”
  • Stelly “is part of a growing movement across the country to take down highways bored through neighborhoods predominantly home to people of color. Most were created as the federal government worked to connect the nation after the birth of the interstate highway system. Many such highways are reaching the end of their 50-year life span, raising the question of whether they should be rebuilt or reimagined.”
  • Yesterday, the White House named the highway, the Claiborne Expressway, “an example of a historic inequity that Biden’s new infrastructure plan would seek to address through billions in new spending.”
  • “Biden’s plan calls for a $20 billion fund to ‘reconnect’ neighborhoods cut off by old transportation projects. Documents released Wednesday by the White House provided little detail about how the money could be used, but the projected cost of taking down highways varies from a few hundred million dollars to billions."
Biden’s new tax plan challenges the GOP’s formula for economic growth. 
  • “The animating idea behind the tax plan put forward by the Biden administration on Wednesday is that the best way to increase America’s competitiveness and foster economic growth is to raise corporate taxes to finance huge investments in transportation, broadband, utilities and more,” the New York Times’s Patricia Cohen reports. “The Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers all welcomed the idea of pumping money into repairing and building the nation’s infrastructure, but recoiled at raising corporate taxes to do so.”
  • "The plan, which still lacks detailed provisions, is 'both an undoing and a pushing in new directions,’ said Mihir A. Desai, an economist at Harvard Business School. ‘The more novel aspects relate to how it changes the way we think about foreign operations and global income.’”
The vice president unveiled the Covid-19 Community Corps, a network that the administration hopes will amplify pro-vaccine messages.
  • Harris and Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy this morning kicked off the first virtual meeting of the “community corps,” which includes more than 275 advocacy organizations, sports leagues, faith groups and community leaders, Dan Diamond reports.

Officials under investigation

State prosecutors in Manhattan subpoenaed personal bank records of the Trump Organization’s longtime CFO. 
  • “In recent weeks, [prosecutors working for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.] have trained their focus on the executive, Allen H. Weisselberg, in what appears to be a determined effort to gain his cooperation. Mr. Weisselberg, who has not been accused of wrongdoing, has overseen the Trump Organization’s finances for decades,” the Times reports. “It is unclear whether Mr. Weisselberg would cooperate with the investigation. … But if a review of his personal finances were to uncover possible wrongdoing, prosecutors could then use that information to press Mr. Weisselberg to guide them through the inner workings of the company.”
Trump once said he calculated his net worth, to a degree, on his “feelings” and that he put his “best spin” on some of the assets. That could come back to haunt him.
  • According to an exchange in a 2007 deposition, the former president said he thinks “everybody” exaggerates about the value of their properties, CNN reports. “Did he inflate values? ‘Not beyond reason,’ Trump said, insisting he gave his ‘opinion’ to a key associate and "ultimately" let that person make the decision.”
  • Trump’s words take on new meaning as Vance’s prosecutors work to find out whether Trump’s “best spin” crossed the line into illegal activity. Trump has repeatedly tried to shrug off responsibility for his valuation decisions onto Weisselberg, but documents and depositions, however, appear to show that Trump was deeply involved in running the company.
The development of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) $4 million pandemic book deal overlapped with his aides’ attempts to hide a damaging death toll. 
  • Cuomo’s aides were reshaping a report about nursing home deaths as the governor prepared early drafts of his book, the Times’s Jesse McKinley, Danny Hakim and Alexandra Alter report. “Emails and an early draft of Mr. Cuomo’s book … indicate that the governor was writing it as early as mid-June, relying on a cadre of trusted aides and junior staffers for everything from full-scale edits to minor clerical work, potentially running afoul of state laws prohibiting use of public resources for personal gain.”
  • Meanwhile, as they helped the governor with his book drafts, top aides, including Melissa DeRosa, were putting “significant input on the July 6 report issued by the Department of Health, which basically cleared Mr. Cuomo’s administration of fault in its handling of nursing homes.” The report, which we now know “threatened to disclose a far higher number of nursing home deaths related to the coronavirus than the Cuomo administration had previously made public,” ended up being published with the number “removed from the final version.”

Quote of the day

Biden told ESPN he would “strongly support” moving the MLB All-Star Game out of Georgia over the state’s restrictive new voting law. “I think today’s professional athletes are acting incredibly responsibly,” Biden said. “People look to them. They’re leaders.” 

Hot on the left

Former transportation secretary Ray LaHood admitted to hiding a $50,000 loan from a foreign billionaire. LaHood, a former GOP member of Congress who served in Obama’s Cabinet from 2009 to 2013, admitted to federal prosecutors that he obtained the loan while in office, Politico reports. “During an interview with the FBI in 2017, LaHood initially denied receiving the loan, but later acknowledged the payment after being shown a copy of the $50,000 check he received in 2012.” 

Hot on the right

Sarah Palin tested positive for the coronavirus. She’s now urging others to continue wearing masks. Palin, 57, said her case is “perhaps one of those that proves anyone can catch this.” “I strongly encourage everyone to use common sense to avoid spreading this and every other virus out there,” she said, People reports. “Through it all, I view wearing that cumbersome mask indoors in a crowd as not only allowing the newfound luxury of being incognito, but trust it's better than doing nothing to slow the spread.” 

Global forest losses, visualized.

The Earth saw nearly 100,000 square miles of lost tree cover last year — an area roughly the size of Colorado — according to the satellite-based survey by Global Forest Watch. The change represents nearly 7 percent more trees lost than in 2019, Chris Mooney, Brady Dennis and John Muyskens report.

Today in Washington

The president will hold his first full Cabinet meeting today at 1:15 p.m. The 25 top administrators will meet with Biden and Vice President Harris for a socially distanced gathering in the East Room. 

In closing

“The Daily Show” reviewed this year's Women's History Month, noting that it wasn't that great for women: