Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A new Democratic president has inherited a nation in crisis. His first major policy initiative is a short-term relief bill intended to lead the way out of that crisis. He follows that bill with proposals to address longer-term problems and, if possible, to change American society for the better. His party holds majorities in the House and the Senate, but both of his initiatives face scorched-earth opposition from Republicans.
I could be describing the early months of either the Obama administration or the Biden administration. But there’s one huge difference between them: Even though Barack Obama began his presidency with high personal approval ratings, his policies never had strong public support. Public approval for Joe Biden’s policies, by contrast, is almost surreally high. Why?
To see what I’m talking about, compare polling on the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — with polling on Biden’s American Jobs Plan.
The ACA, famously, had negative net approval throughout the Obama years. Its image didn’t improve until the Trump administration tried to kill it, and even then it faced overwhelming disapproval from Republican voters.
By contrast, Americans approve of the jobs plan by huge margins, and while elected Republicans are dead set against Biden’s proposal, Republican voters on net support it.
What’s the secret of Biden’s success?
Part of the answer, surely, is identity politics. Let’s be blunt here: The modern version of “only Nixon could go to China” may be “only an old white guy can sell a new New Deal.”
Another factor working in Biden’s favor is the closing of professional Republicans’ minds. Even before conspiracy theories took control, Republican politicians were living in a mental bubble; in many ways the modern GOP is more like a cult than a normal political party.
And at this point Republicans seem so deep in the cult that they’ve forgotten how to talk to outsiders. When they denounce every progressive idea as socialism, declare every center-left politician a Marxist, rant about “job creators” and insist on calling their rival the “Democrat Party,” they’re talking to themselves and persuading nobody.
If you want to see Republican tone-deafness in action, look at Sen. Marsha Blackburn’s recent attack on the jobs plan. It’s not really about infrastructure, she proclaimed; why, it would spend hundreds of billions on elder care. And she apparently imagined that voters would see helping the elderly as a bad thing.
Biden, then, benefits from having a nonthreatening persona and an opposition that has forgotten how to make persuasive policy arguments. But the popularity of Bidenomics also reflects the effectiveness of a party that is far more comfortable in its own skin than it was a dozen years ago.
Unlike Republicans, Democrats are members of a normal political party — basically a mildly center-left party that looks a lot like its counterparts across the free world. In the past, however, Democrats seemed afraid to embrace this identity.
One striking thing about the Obama years, in retrospect, was the deference of Democrats to people who didn’t share their goals. The Obama administration deferred to bankers who warned that anything populist-sounding would undermine confidence and to deficit scolds demanding fiscal austerity. It wasted months on a doomed effort to get Republican support for health reform.
And along with this deference went diffidence, a reluctance to do simple, popular things like giving people money and taxing corporations. Instead, the Obama team tended to favor subtle policies that most Americans didn’t even notice.
Now the deference is gone. Wall Street clearly has a lot less influence this time around; Biden’s economic advisers evidently believe that if you build a better economy, confidence will take care of itself. The obsession with bipartisanship is also gone, replaced with a realistic appreciation of Republican bad faith, which has also made the new administration uninterested in GOP talking points.
And the old diffidence has evaporated. Biden isn’t just going big, he’s going obvious, with highly visible policies rather than behavioral nudges. Furthermore, these forthright policies involve doing popular things. For example, voters have consistently told pollsters that corporations pay too little in taxes; Biden’s team, buoyed by the Trump tax cut’s failure, is willing to give the public what it wants.
So Biden’s 2021 isn’t playing anything like Obama’s 2009, and Republicans don’t seem to know what hit them.
Of course, polls may change. Public support for the Obama stimulus, never very strong, plunged in the face of a sluggish economic recovery. Voters might sour on Bidenomics, too, if the economy disappoints.
But all indications are that we’re heading for an economic boom, with GDP growing at its fastest rate since 1984. If that happens, Biden’s policies might get even more popular than they are now.
How all of this will translate into votes remains to be seen. But early indications are that Biden has achieved what Obama never did: finding a way to make progressive policies truly popular.