Political polls come and go, the results often unsurprising in a polarized, tribal America. Yet early this week, one poll’s finding brought political nerds from the White House to Washington’s watering holes up short.
More than 6 in 10 Americans, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll published on the eve of President Biden’s State of the Union address, said that the president — widely credited by historians and nonpartisan analysts for having achieved more legislatively in his first two years than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson — had accomplished “little or nothing.”
Talk about a communications crisis for the White House.
Biden as a do-nothing president was of course the overwhelming sentiment of Republican respondents, 93% of them, which skewed the overall result. Yet more than 1 in 5 Democrats also dismissed the president’s record to date and, ominously, so did nearly two-thirds of those in the often decisive ranks of political independents. That left just 36% of all Americans saying Biden had done “a great deal” or “good amount.”
You could almost hear the groans from the comms folks in the West Wing. While some Americans don’t like what Biden has done along with a Democratic-controlled Congress, there shouldn’t be any argument that he’s done a lot. Right?
The Biden record: A nationwide COVID-19 vaccination program and economic relief. A $1.2-trillion infrastructure package, the largest in many decades. A program to rebuild a domestic semiconductor chips industry. New aid to veterans exposed to toxins. The first gun-safety law in three decades. A U.S.-led coalition to help counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Authorization for lower prescription drug prices, including insulin, for older Americans. A bipartisan law to protect democracy, by preventing efforts in Congress to overturn presidential election results.
There’s more, much more. So what gives? Why the disconnect between the reality and the perception of the Biden record? I turned to two go-to pollsters, one from each party.
Geoff Garin, a longtime pollster for Democratic candidates and progressive groups, wasn’t all that surprised by the Post/ABC poll finding. “We see in our research that a lot of voters simply are not aware of what Biden has been able to accomplish,” he told me, adding, “That is what high-profile speeches like the State of the Union and, more importantly, campaigns are for.”
But in the recent midterm elections, Democrats did not run on Biden’s record. Instead they emphasized — effectively, it turned out — Republicans’ extremism, abortion rights and protections for democracy. They distanced themselves from the president given his low poll ratings. So while they fared better in the elections than just about anyone expected them to, they did so at the expense of promoting the Democratic agenda. To the extent Democrats did boast about the administration’s first two years, “they claimed Biden’s accomplishments as their own,” Garin said, “without giving Biden much of the credit.”
“The other reality,” he said, “is that voters care less about legislation being passed than about concrete results.”
Biden himself acknowledged that dynamic in his State of the Union address, noting that many of the things he has achieved “are only now coming to fruition.” Thus, his latest refrain, “Let’s finish the job.”
Veteran Republican pollster Bill McInturff, half of the bipartisan duo that polls for NBC News, cited two reasons for Biden’s messaging problem: The distraction of other news. And tribalism.
“Three massive news stories during President Biden’s term — COVID, inflation, and the Russia/Ukraine war — have crowded out the usual attention a president might receive for his actions,” McInturff wrote in an email. “That and this hyper-partisan period are major barriers in getting credit for his administration’s actions.”
Americans who don’t like Biden might well be disinclined to give him any credit even if they know he’s gotten things done. Among the findings that McInturff passed along from an NBC News survey last month was this: A plurality of respondents, 42%, said Biden has “brought the wrong kind of change,” while 26% said he has “not really brought much change either way.” Fewer than a third, just 30%, said he’d brought the right change.
Despite this backdrop, Biden delivered his nationally televised State of the Union speech on Tuesday not defensively but opportunistically. He ballyhooed his achievements like a happy warrior — sharing credit with Republicans where appropriate, at other times drawing partisan contrasts with them like the candidate-in-waiting he is, and deftly parrying the knuckleheads who heckled him.
“I’ll see you at the groundbreaking,” he ad-libbed to those who opposed his infrastructure spending.
Expect to see Biden at a lot of groundbreakings in his term’s second half, given that it likely will double as his reelection campaign. Clearly, he has to get out of Washington a lot more if he’s going to run on a record that’s impressive but has yet to make an impression. (He won’t be adding to that record much, that’s for sure, now that the House is under Republican control and functioning as a graveyard for progressive initiatives.)
In the two days after his speech, Biden jetted to Wisconsin and Florida to spread the word about his achievements, generating local coverage about the jobs and other benefits his initiatives will bring to those swing states. (No, Democrats haven’t given up on winning in Florida. Yet.) In Baltimore recently, he crowed about plans to rebuild a 19th century tunnel essential to rail shipments, and at the Ohio-Kentucky border he took credit for what will be a new bridge over the Ohio River.
The president is flying high after good reviews for his Tuesday performance from pundits, politicians and quickie polls. He got extra points for the contrast between his can-do optimism and the vile negativity of some Republicans in the audience.
But when it comes to fixing his messaging problem, he hasn’t finished the job.