Flop sweat: Dems are starting to panic about Biden's slide

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

A follow-up to Ed’s post this morning. There’s a lot of material on the wires today about Democrats and their sympathizers looking at Biden’s falling job approval and wondering just how much of a walloping they’re going to get in the midterms. Not whether they’re going to get one, but how much of one.

What ties these various takes together is the sense that there’s just not much the party can do to avoid it. We’re still further removed from Election Day 2022 at the moment than we are from Election Day 2020, but there’s a whiff of fatalism to the commentary that once a president sinks to around 45 percent approval, that’s where he’ll sit for most of the rest of his presidency. It happened to Trump, it happened to Obama (although he saw a bit more variation), and now it’s happening to Sleepy Joe. That’s life in a 50/50 country where a slight majority of the middle seems perpetually convinced that things aren’t going as well as they should be. In fact, Jonathan Last noted today, Gallup’s polling on whether the U.S. is on the right track hasn’t touched 50 percent in 17 years. Since Dubya’s first term.

If Bush couldn’t turn it around and Obama couldn’t turn it around and Trump couldn’t turn it around, why would anyone think Biden can? And since all three of those other presidents got ass-kickings in the midterms, what reason is there to believe Biden will dodge their fate?

Charles Blow channeled liberals’ anxiety in a column yesterday titled, bluntly, “Democrats, You’re in Danger.” All of Biden’s effort is being spent on an infrastructure package which Blow supports, he notes, but what about the less tangible domestic reforms that Biden promised his party? Police reform? Voting rights? A mass amnesty for illegals? “Biden is better than Trump, but that’s not enough,” Blow wrote. “People didn’t just vote for Biden to vanquish a villain; they also wanted a champion. That champion has yet to emerge.” His concerns were echoed by activists in Georgia who spoke to WaPo about their own dissatisfaction with Biden. They didn’t organize last year because of a new child tax credit or whatever. Where’s their payoff?

Robinson, founder of the Black Male Voter Project, thinks the case would be a lot harder to make now. He remembers the exact moment his optimism that President Biden would be different began to fade: when Democrats in May said they were willing to significantly weaken a policing reform bill to get Republican support.

More disappointments followed. Robinson was dismayed that Biden did not push for filibuster reform to enact a $15 minimum wage. He was upset that the president did not try to halt a raft of voting restrictions passed by Georgia’s GOP-led legislature.

“I think the frustration is at an all-time high, and Biden can’t go to Georgia or any other Black state in the South and say, ‘This is what we delivered in 2021,’ ” said Robinson, whose group believes it reached 1.2 million Black men in Georgia. “Black men are pissed off about the nothingness that has happened . . . Does it make the work harder? It makes the work damn near impossible.”

Biden’s approval has slipped noticeably with black voters over the past two months, a turn which some pundits (like me) have attributed to his COVID vaccine mandate alienating unvaccinated African-Americans. But it’s more complicated than that, as the WaPo story clarifies. And the agony for Biden is that there’s no way to deliver any of the things Blow and Robinson demand without nuking the filibuster. In fact, there’s probably no way to deliver them even if they do nuke the filibuster. Joe Manchin would oppose a sweeping voting rights bill on the order of H.R. 1 and, I’m guessing, a broad bill to legalize America’s illegal immigrants. Maybe he’d go along on police reform, but it’s anyone’s guess how deep red West Virginians would react to a Democrat-only bill that put tight federal restrictions on police conduct.

And even if Manchin were willing to vote for the police reform bill, Democrats themselves would probably water it down for fear of handing the GOP some new ammo about them allegedly wanting to defund the police. All of which is a long way of saying that the Democratic coalition may be too unwieldy to manage. The concessions being made to try to keep centrist suburbanites inside the tent are the things that are alienating some left-wing voters. Again, there’s no easy way out of this.

There’s another thought that has Dem leaders terrified. What if last year’s polling errors haven’t been resolved? That is, what if the polls showing Biden at 45 percent are considerably overestimating his support? A.B. Stoddard wonders:

Postmortem assessments are complicated and, largely, inconclusive. But several point to the likelihood that both Republican and Democratic polls — almost all of which favored Biden over President Trump — were off by an average of four percentage points; that most surveys likely oversampled liberal Democrats; that a surge of new voters could have contributed to the polling errors; and that Trump supporters were less likely to respond to pollsters because Trump repeatedly characterized them as “fake” or “suppression polls.” While 2022 will not be a presidential year, a study of 2020 polls by the American Association of Public Opinion Research found that “[t]he overstatement of the Democratic-Republican margin in polls was larger on average in senatorial and gubernatorial races compared to the Presidential contest. Last year Democrats poured record sums into Senate races in red states like Montana, South Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and Iowa because the polling looked so promising — only to lose them all.

There are things that could happen to improve Democrats’ chances before next fall, but the key word is “happen.” There isn’t a ton Dems themselves can do in the form of policy to turn things around. The most important development would be COVID receding, but Biden has already used most of the weapons in his arsenal to influence that by mandating vaccination in a variety of ways. If that doesn’t work to prevent new waves of infection into next year, he’ll need the virus to run its course naturally before November by instilling enough herd immunity in the population to keep cases low-ish permanently. That will help boost the economy too, but the economy is also bedeviled at the moment by supply-chain snarls, rising energy prices, and related inflation. There’s only so much the feds can do to solve what’s become a global problem.

One thing they can and probably will end up doing is passing their infrastructure package. But how much will that really help them?

Voters don’t even know what’s in it. And the longer they take to reach a deal, the less time centrist Dems will have to educate voters about it. They sound panicked already, frankly.

SCOTUS could always pull a rabbit out of the hat next summer, overturning Roe and sending liberals into a frenzy that leads to blockbuster turnout in the fall. But that too is out of Biden’s hands. Democrats may be stuck campaigning against Trump and how the Trumpist GOP is unfit to govern, but the focus group Ed wrote about this morning didn’t seem to view Biden and Democrats as the lesser evil. And even with a rival as ubiquitous as Trump who’s working hard to sabotage his own party with lies about a rigged election, it’s hard for the governing party to convince unhappy voters that the party out of power is the one they should be mad at.

Which means Democrats can’t succeed by running on negative partisanship. But, given Last’s point about how Americans no longer believe the country is *ever* on the right track, they can’t run on positive partisanship either by touting their agenda. Voters either don’t know what their agenda is or, a la Blow, they’ll conclude that Democrats have failed to deliver on important stuff even if a gajillion-dollar reconciliation bill passes. Smells like doom either way.

I’ll leave you with William Saletan, apparently the last liberal optimist.