Is the left to blame for Biden's poor approval ratings?

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

It’s a given that Joe Biden’s presidency isn’t going very well, at least not according to Americans who’ve been polled about his successes and failures. His approval rating is, at best, in the low 40s and some polls suggest things are much worse.

All of that is naturally of great concern to other elected Democrats and their supporters who want to know what’s to blame for his current performance so they can try to do something to fix it before it’s too late. In a party that has been openly divided between progressives and moderates since at least the 2016 election, this means an ongoing argument over who is to blame for the current troubles. Is the left to blame or are the moderates to blame? Below I’m going to present takes from three different authors writing about this basic problem.

First up is this piece from Paul Waldman at the Washington Post. It’s titled, “Stop blaming the left for Biden’s problems.

With President Biden’s agenda dragging itself through the molasses of the legislative process and his hopes for a transformative presidency seemingly dashed, it’s all but inevitable that blame will be placed on the Democratic Party’s progressives. They were too ambitious and too naive, this story goes, believing they had a mandate for revolutionary change when in fact the public opposed their left-wing program.

But that story is wrong in every respect. In fact, over the past two years, progressives have done almost everything right, or at least as well as could have been expected. If they don’t get all the policy victories they want — and they won’t — it isn’t because of some kind of strategic miscalculation or any success forcing the party to follow their disastrous path to electoral doom…

Now, let’s consider how progressives have operated since the lead-up to the 2020 election. Is it a story of progressives dragging Democrats toward an untenable and unpopular left-wing agenda? Was there a brutal internal conflict over policy that progressives won?

Not at all. The party has unquestionably moved left — but not as far as the progressives have wanted.

I find this argument the least persuasive not so much for what Waldman says as for what he doesn’t say. It’s true that, at least to some degree, elected progressives have been more practical than you might have expected. However, elected progressives are not the whole of the party. And that brings me to author #2. Ruy Teixeira published a piece at his Substack today arguing that the left’s theory of how they would ascend to dominance in their own party has been a failure. His piece is broken into five points. I won’t try to rehash all of them here (they’re all worth reading), but here’s a bit of point #3 which I think is responsive to Waldman’s argument above.

3. Cultural Leftism Is a Winner! The left in the Democratic party insists that cultural leftism is central to consolidating the “rising American electorate” that will power the Democratic party to dominance in an increasingly multicultural, multiracial America. It is a feature they say, not a bug, of current Democratic practice.

But in the process, the left has managed to associate the Democratic party with a series of views on crime, immigration, policing, schooling, free speech and of course race and gender that are quite far from those of the median voter. That’s a success for the left but the hard reality is that it’s an electoral liability for the Democratic party. From time to time Democratic politicians like Biden try to dissociate themselves from super-unpopular ideas like defunding the police but the voices of cultural leftism within the party are still more deferred to than opposed. These voices are further amplified by Democratic-leaning media and nonprofits, as well as within the Democratic party infrastructure itself, all of which are thoroughly dominated by cultural leftism. In an era when a party’s national brand increasingly defines state and even local electoral contests, Democratic candidates have a very hard time shaking these cultural left associations.

That’s a huge problem because the median voter simply does not share the outlook embodied by cultural leftism. As a result, many voters are put off by the cultural positions that are now fashionable within the Democratic party, especially given that so many of these Democrats seem to look down on all those with different views. This attitude is not a secret to these voters and they react accordingly. And, as the data cited above indicate, it’s not just white voters who are put off by these cultural positions—the nonwhites in whose name many of these positions are adopted are not enthusiastic about them either.

To put it bluntly, it wasn’t elected officials following Sen. Sinema into a bathroom with a camera it was just progressives. It wasn’t always elected progressives pushing to defund the police either. In fact, sometimes elected progressives pushed back on this terrible idea. Nevertheless, the idea did resonate on the progressive left and did even alter budgets in some blue cities (albeit briefly) thanks to their efforts.

The point is that voters can see what the progressive left is doing even if some of the elected figures who are part of that group do their best to downplay it. Elected figures and the sympathetic media can keep claiming that Critical Race Theory isn’t taught in schools but progressives drone on daily about how literally everything is the result of white supremacy and racism. Progressives can argue that defund the police isn’t what it sounds like even as violent crime skyrockets as a result of police leaving their jobs or simply playing it safe. Ultimately, voters don’t have to pretend they believe what elected officials are saying about progressive beliefs or goals when evidence to the contrary is all around them.

Finally, that brings me to this piece by Matt Yglesias in today’s NY Times. Yglesias is looking at the same problem and ultimately comes down on the side of the moderates, not because he’s a moderate himself but because he sees normalcy as the only politically effective card Democrats can play at this point.

President Biden’s first year in office has been frustrating for many of his supporters. He has disappointed his more leftist supporters by refusing to take aggressive unilateral action in some areas where he has discretion, and he has disappointed his more moderate supporters by choosing to take aggressive action in other areas…

When all is said and done, the frustrations of the Biden supporters who want a return to normal are more politically significant than those of the more progressive crowd who yearn for transformation…

The fate of Mr. Biden’s presidency — and if you believe the dire warnings of many Democrats and academics, of the republic itself — hinges less on the fate of legacy items like Build Back Better or a renewed voting rights act than it does on the normal procession of macroeconomic events…

It means more attention to classic Biden themes of patriotism, bipartisanship and normalcy, and fewer headlines dominated by high-profile squeeze plays against moderate senators.

Most of what has happened to Mr. Biden has been very normal. But if Democrats take their own fears about the opposition party seriously, they should be very worried about the consequences of the normal cycle of overreach and backlash, and try harder to surprise the country by doubling down on normalcy.

I think he’s right that this is the best chance Democrats have. They’ve spent months beating up their own moderates who’ve refused to give them the $6 trillion BBB bill that Sen. Sanders wanted. In retrospect this looks pretty self-destructive. If Democrats were smarter, they would go to Manchin today and ask him to support a $1.1 trillion bill (well below his 1.5 trillion cutoff) that does just one or two things, maybe pre-K and climate change funding. It would be a fraction of what the transformational left wants but it would be a win the party could campaign on. Instead they have rather stupidly doubled down on dire warnings about the end of democracy (which polls indicate isn’t working) and squabbling in public, none of which feels like the return to normal Biden promised throughout his campaign.