Biden in Free Fall
New York magazine|November 22 - December 5, 2021
Progressive donors to the left of him, cynical centrists to the right— a unified theory of why his popular agenda is so unpopular.
By Jonathan Chait

It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the fate of American democracy may hinge on President Joe Biden’s success.

If his approval rating sinks too far below 50 percent, it becomes more likely than not that the next election will reinstall into power his exiled predecessor, who has never relinquished his claim and by all appearances is intent on running for a second term in 2024.

The Democrats had a plan to rescue their party and the country: Biden would steer clear of the faddish slogans and radical demands that had seized his party’s base and focus relentlessly on practical benefits desired by the working-class voters who had deserted Democrats for Donald Trump. The elegance of this plan was that polls showed support not only for the new social provisions that would form the heart of his legislative agenda in his first year—child care, community college, expansions of Medicare and Medicaid, and so on—but also for the sources of their funding. The money would come from taxing the rich, bargaining down the cost of prescription drugs, and going after wealthy tax cheats.

This was the vision that entranced liberals in the heady months after Biden’s inauguration. He would usher in a New New Deal that would end the long Reagan era in which Republicans painted government as an enemy of normal Americans. The Democrats seemed to have the means to do it: control of Congress, a pandemic-induced national emergency that cried out for robust government intervention, and relative unanimity between their warring wings.

Eleven months into his term, and a year from a midterm election that appears likely to end his legislative majority, the cold reality for Biden is that his presidency is on the brink of failure. Business lobbyists swarmed over Washington, ripping chunks out of his Build Back Better program. The scope of his agenda kept shrinking in tandem with his poll numbers. Initially, the drop seemed attributable to temporary factors. Maybe the cause was the Delta wave that crested this past summer. Maybe it was the media freak-out over his ham-handed Afghanistan withdrawal. But even as those events receded from the headlines, Biden’s numbers continued to drop along with the fortunes of his party, which lost control of the governorship in Virginia in November and badly underperformed elsewhere.

Nobody can say with any confidence if this fall can be reversed. Indeed, given the U.S.’s steady job growth, nobody can ascertain exactly why the public has turned so sour so fast. Biden is like a patient wasting away from some undiagnosable disease. What is clear is that if the presidential election were held this fall, Biden would enter the contest as the decided underdog against Trump.

The conventional wisdom has deemed that Biden is getting his just deserts for trying to govern as a liberal. “The concerns of more centrist Americans about a rush to spend taxpayer money, a rush to grow the government, should not be dismissed,” scolded a New York Times editorial. “Biden misread his moderate mandate,” concluded Matt Lewis at the Daily Beast, while Maureen Dowd at the Times declared that the Democrats’ “overweening efforts” in Congress were “putting off many voters who are still struggling just to get by.”

But the truth is that Biden’s presidency began to disintegrate without his abandoning the center at all. He found himself trapped instead between a well-funded left wing that has poisoned the party’s image with many of its former supporters and centrists unable to conceive of their job in any terms save as valets for the business elite. Biden’s party has not veered too far left or too far right so much as it has simply come apart.

So many of the Democratic Party’s woes can be traced back to a statistical error. After Barack Obama won reelection in 2012, exit polls showed he had prevailed despite losing the white vote by 20 points. The implications were enormous for both parties. Racial minorities were casting a rising share of the vote, reshaping the electorate in ways that seemed to doom the Republican Party and its heavily white coalition. After the election, a Republican autopsy recommended the party move to the center on social issues, including immigration, to win over Latino voters. Democrats, meanwhile, prioritized immigration reform, which they hoped Republicans would have no choice but to cooperate with.

Nearly four years later, Times data analyst Nate Cohn discovered the entire premise of this belief was wrong. Those exit polls turned out to have significantly undercounted the old white working-class share of the electorate. In fact, it was these voters in the upper Midwest who had supplied Obama’s winning margin.

Yet this correction came too late to budge what had become a settled belief across the political spectrum. The Republican Establishment in 2016 bemoaned that in nominating Trump, the party was angering the very constituents it would need to attract. Democrats were convinced their political fate depended on mobilizing the young, socially liberal voters who had fueled Obama’s rise. The 2016 primary featured two Democratic candidates with different theories as to how to energize these voters. Bernie Sanders believed they would turn out to vote en masse for a candidate who promised revolutionary economic change. Hillary Clinton began employing terms and concepts used by academics and embraced by progressive activists. Her campaign tweeted lines like “Flint’s water crisis is an example of the combined effects of intersecting issues that impact communities of color” and “We face a complex, intersectional set of challenges.”

While this lingo may have sounded alien to people without college degrees, it thrilled progressive intellectuals, who saw it as a sign of ideological and cultural affiliation. One Vox story, headlined “Hillary Clinton Said ‘Systemic Racism’ in Tonight’s Speech. That’s Major,” explained that while Obama had “addressed racial divides in his speeches, the term ‘systemic racism,’ embraced in particular by younger activists, was not present in his addresses.” Both Clinton and the media assumed that mobilizing young, non-white voters meant winning the praise of progressive activists and journalists, which in turn meant adopting the language of the seminar.

Sanders’s strong, if ultimately unsuccessful, challenge to Clinton appeared to validate the theory that the electorate was quickly moving left. That premise was one reason so few political strategists in either party took Trump’s chances seriously. How could he win when he was alienating such a huge share of the voters he needed?

Clinton’s defeat in 2016 was spurred in part by older white voters in the Rust Belt defecting to Trump, causing the Democrats’ famous Blue Wall in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to crumble. But her loss did not cause Democrats to abandon a strategy based on inspiring liberal voters. Instead, it paradoxically accelerated their commitment to it. Among other things, the shock of Trump’s victory seemed to topple the whole notion that voters would punish candidates who endorsed extreme or unpopular positions.

The left teemed with bold, progressive new ideas: socialism, the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and others. All these interesting new slogans drew broad media coverage— especially, though not exclusively, on Fox News, which gleefully turned the party’s left wing into its public face.

During the 2020 primary campaign, progressive commentators were writing columns on a near-daily basis insisting that none of this could hurt the party. Swing voters barely existed, left-wing policies were all popular, mobilizing the base mattered far more than appealing to moderates, and electability was just an empty buzzword used by a failed Establishment to fend off popular changes. For a while, these arguments carried the day as the leading Democratic candidates kept racing one another to endorse ideas that polled catastrophically: decriminalizing illegal border crossings (27 percent approval versus 66 percent disapproval), abolishing private health insurance (37 versus 58), and providing government health insurance for people who immigrated illegally (38 versus 59).

The assumption that the left had gained control of the party became so self-evident that the very idea that a retrograde figure like Biden could win its nomination seemed like a sad joke. A whole genre of columns literally begged Biden not to run for president, to spare himself the embarrassment of the inevitable rejection by a party that had moved on. Even the insider-y publication Politico deemed Biden “a deeply flawed candidate who’s out of step with the mood of his party.”

Biden, of course, won the nomination, then the general election. But the years that preceded his victory left internal schisms and damage the party has not managed to heal.

Democratic Party insiders experienced the election as something more like a defeat than a victory. The narrowness of his win against Trump—and the unexpected losses absorbed by Democrats running for Congress—brought into the open complaints that had been only whispered before. A postelection autopsy by a trio of Democratic-aligned groups found that congressional candidates suffered damage with voters who believed their party supported socialism or defunding the police.

Yet while most of the official Democratic Party—meaning its elected officials and paid staffers—now agrees that it erred by allowing its brand to be associated with unpopular left-wing ideas, many progressives remain loath to concede the point, noting that the Democrats got their old white moderate and still only managed sign of ideological and cultural affiliation. One Vox story, headlined “Hillary Clinton Said ‘Systemic Racism’ in Tonight’s Speech. That’s Major,” explained that while Obama had “addressed racial divides in his speeches, the term ‘systemic racism,’ embraced in particular by younger activists, was not present in his addresses.” Both Clinton and the media assumed that mobilizing young, non-white voters meant winning the praise of progressive activists and journalists, which in turn meant adopting the language of the seminar.

Sanders’s strong, if ultimately unsuccessful, challenge to Clinton appeared to validate the theory that the electorate was quickly moving left. That premise was one reason so few political strategists in either party took Trump’s chances seriously. How could he win when he was alienating such a huge share of the voters he needed?

Clinton’s defeat in 2016 was spurred in part by older white voters in the Rust Belt defecting to Trump, causing the Democrats’ famous Blue Wall in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to crumble. But her loss did not cause Democrats to abandon a strategy based on inspiring liberal voters. Instead, it paradoxically accelerated their commitment to it. Among other things, the shock of Trump’s victory seemed to topple the whole notion that voters would punish candidates who endorsed extreme or unpopular positions.

The left teemed with bold, progressive new ideas: socialism, the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and others. All these interesting new slogans drew broad media coverage— especially, though not exclusively, on Fox News, which gleefully turned the party’s left wing into its public face.

During the 2020 primary campaign, progressive commentators were writing columns on a near-daily basis insisting that none of this could hurt the party. Swing voters barely existed, left-wing policies were all popular, mobilizing the base mattered far more than appealing to moderates, and electability was just an empty buzzword used by a failed Establishment to fend off popular changes. For a while, these arguments carried the day as the leading Democratic candidates kept racing one another to endorse ideas that polled catastrophically: decriminalizing illegal border crossings (27 percent approval versus 66 percent disapproval), abolishing private health insurance (37 versus 58), and providing government health insurance for people who immigrated illegally (38 versus 59).

The assumption that the left had gained control of the party became so self-evident that the very idea that a retrograde figure like Biden could win its nomination seemed like a sad joke. A whole genre of columns literally begged Biden not to run for president, to spare himself the embarrassment of the inevitable rejection by a party that had moved on. Even the insider-y publication Politico deemed Biden “a deeply flawed candidate who’s out of step with the mood of his party.”

Biden, of course, won the nomination, then the general election. But the years that preceded his victory left internal schisms and damage the party has not managed to heal.

Democratic Party insiders experienced the election as something more like a defeat than a victory. The narrowness of his win against Trump—and the unexpected losses absorbed by Democrats running for Congress—brought into the open complaints that had been only whispered before. A postelection autopsy by a trio of Democratic-aligned groups found that congressional candidates suffered damage with voters who believed their party supported socialism or defunding the police.

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