WASHINGTON (SBG) — As President Joe Biden signs a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill Monday, a new poll indicates inflation concerns are overshadowing more positive developments and voters increasingly feel the White House is not focused enough on the issues affecting them.
President Biden’s approval rating ticked down to a new low of 41% in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Sunday. Several other recent surveys also suggest the president is at the lowest point of his first 10 months in office, and the climb out of the hole he finds himself in could be long and treacherous.
Voters showed strong approval for Biden’s handling of most major issues through the early months of his presidency. By late summer, though, amid a chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, a resurgence of COVID-19 driven by the delta variant, and persistent supply chain disruption, his support began to wane.
Biden’s poll numbers have continued to slide even as the delta wave subsided and the nation’s economic trajectory improved. Passage of the broadly popular infrastructure package does not appear to have helped his standing much either so far.
Now, Democrats are staring down midterm elections in less than 12 months in which they are likely to lose control of at least one chamber of Congress, if not both. In the Post-ABC poll, Republicans held a 10-point advantage in a generic ballot matchup, the largest in the 40-year history of the survey.
Despite clearing $3 trillion in spending through a bitterly divided Congress – including stimulus check and monthly child tax credit payments – nearly half of Americans said Biden has done “little or nothing” since taking office, and only 31% said he has kept major campaign promises. The economy has regained almost 6 million jobs since Biden took office and economic growth is on track to rebound strongly this quarter, but 70% of respondents rated the economy as “not so good” or “poor.”
While Biden’s approval is sinking, voters remain supportive of major aspects of his domestic agenda. The infrastructure bill was backed by 63% of respondents, and 58% favored a package of “about $2 trillion” to launch new social programs and address climate change, which Democrats aim to accomplish in the coming weeks with the Build Back Better Act.
The survey suggests an erosion of support among the president’s base, with approval from Democratic voters slipping by 14 points since June and only about 40% of Democrats strongly approving of his performance. It also signals growing dissatisfaction with his handling of the economy and the pandemic, issues on which voters rated him strongly in the spring.
President Biden and his aides have downplayed sagging poll numbers, insisting public perception will improve as the pandemic recedes and the economy recovers. Still, they have begun to acknowledge that process is taking longer than they expected as supply shortages and inflation drag on into winter.
“Many people remain unsettled about the economy, and we know why,” Biden said last Wednesday. “They see higher prices. They go to the store or go online and can’t find what they want.”
According to Democratic strategist Scott Ferson, it is common for voters to focus on their immediate economic strife rather than broader positive trends. As long as prices for groceries and gas are going up, Democrats may not get much traction touting the success of Biden’s policies.
“We may think people are thinking deeply about these things, but most people aren’t,” Ferson said. “They’re just living their lives You need to meet them where they live.”
Biden supporters believe legislative action is vital to reversing Democrats’ political fortunes. They argue intraparty squabbles and gridlock on Capitol Hill have distracted from selling Biden’s policies to Americans, and passing the Build Back Better Act would offer an opportunity to change the narrative.
“The investments in this package will provide truly life-changing relief to families feeling an economic squeeze,” Leah Greenberg, co-executive director of Indivisible, said Monday. “After months of negotiations, we shouldn’t delay a day more in moving this bill forward.”
Republicans maintain the lesson Democrats should be taking away from Biden’s political struggles and the party’s election losses earlier this month is to change course and abandon their social spending plans. Although more than two dozen Republican lawmakers voted for the infrastructure bill, they are expected to uniformly oppose the spending package.
“The American people have given this president failing grades across the board on his first quarter report card, failing because of high costs and prices, failing because of an overrun border, failing because of the tragedy and the failure in Afghanistan,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday.
If inflation is the biggest obstacle impeding a political recovery for the president, it is also one that economists say the White House cannot do much about in the near term. The factors pushing prices upward are complex and global in nature, and to the extent that Biden’s American Rescue Plan earlier this year exacerbated consumer demand, the damage is already done.
Lawrence Summers, who served as Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton and as an economic adviser to President Barack Obama, had been warning for months that the White House and congressional Democrats were underestimating the risk of inflation. Although he has seen some signs officials now recognize the price spike will not be as transitory as they hoped, he still sees severe political risks on the horizon.
“Excessive inflation and a sense that it was not being controlled helped elect Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and risks bringing Donald Trump back to power,” Summers wrote in a Washington Post op-ed Monday.
However, Summers also continues to advocate for passage of an expansive social spending bill, as long as it is fully offset by new revenue. Other left-leaning economists have made similar arguments that the proposed spending would not increase inflationary pressures as long as promises that it will not increase government debt are kept.
Whether the current incarnation of the Build Back Better Act fulfills those promises is debatable, though. Some moderates have balked at the financing structure for the proposed new programs, which would provide enough funding over the next decade to pay for a few years of benefits but potentially increase deficits if they are allowed to become permanent.
“What I see are shell games and budget gimmicks that make the real cost of this so-called ‘$1.75 trillion dollar’ bill estimated to be twice as high if the programs are extended or made permanent,” Sen. Joe Manchin, W.Va., said in a recent statement. “That is recipe for economic crisis.”
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed Sunday, Ben Ritz of the Progressive Policy Institute cautioned Democrats’ plans threaten to drive up deficit-financed federal spending in the first year when it could have dire political and economic consequences in the 2022 elections. Voter concerns about inflation and deficits would likely outweigh their attitudes toward Biden’s policies.
“The popularity of the bill’s policies on paper won’t help Democrats politically if their macroeconomic effects are even more unpopular,” Ritz said.
Given stiff resistance from Manchin and other centrists to some proposed tax increases, a more fiscally responsible BBB would almost certainly need to be a smaller, more focused one, and that would present political challenges, as well. A recent Yahoo/YouGov survey found scaling back Biden’s plan and slashing popular provisions to save money has dampened enthusiasm for it.
Among independents and Democrats, support for passing Biden’s agenda dropped precipitously when voters were informed proposals like paid family leave and free community college were stripped out to bring the cost down. In that poll, a plurality of Americans opposed the $1.75 trillion version of the bill.
Ferson believes passing Biden’s bill would have positive short-term and long-term repercussions for Americans and for the Democratic Party. Whether those effects are felt in time to salvage Democrats’ prospects in the midterm elections depends both on inflation easing and on the White House making a stronger sales pitch to voters.
“If I’m heading into the midterms, if somebody has put money in my pocket and food on my table and helped me stay in my home, those are material things,” Ferson said. “Whether Democrats get credit for it is a messaging issue.”