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Biden Ran on Unity. There’s Room for Improvement.

Many of his policies are popular, but there’s more he can do to heal the country.
April 28, 2021
Biden Ran on Unity. There’s Room for Improvement.
Heart-shape signs with Valentine messages are on display on the North Lawn of the White House February 12, 2021 in Washington, DC. The office of first lady Jill Biden set up the Valentine messages to the country overnight to mark Valentine’s Day. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Among right-wingers, there has been some delight about polls showing that Joe Biden’s popularity at the 100 day mark is the lowest of any president since World War II. Oh, if you exclude Donald Trump. Undaunted by this detail, they note with satisfaction that Biden’s approval rating, according to multiplepolls, is somewhere between 52 and 57 percent. At this point in his presidency, Trump’s approval was 40 percent.

Those who exult in Biden’s lower approval ratings compared with past presidents (again, with the glaring exception of the TFG), are omitting a key factor: Americans were far less partisan in the era of Eisenhower, Reagan, Bush, and even Clinton than they are now. Large numbers of Democrats were willing to give high marks to Eisenhower when the economy was thriving, or to George H.W. Bush when we had just won a quick war, and a not insignificant number of Republicans approved of Clinton when we enjoyed balanced budgets and booming markets. But in recent years, negative partisanship has curdled our perceptions. One symptom of negative partisanship is the sharp decline in ticket-splitting. As the Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter noted:

After the 1992 election, for example, there were 103 split-ticket House seats; 53 that voted for George HW Bush and a Democratic member of Congress, and 50 that voted for Bill Clinton and a Republican member of the House . . . The 2016 Trump election produced just 35 split-CDs. And, post-2020, there are only 17, or just four percent of the House.

Starting with the presidency of George W. Bush, the partisan divide in presidential approval ratings went through the roof. Some 80 percent of Republicans expressed approval for Bush, but only 10 percent of Democrats agreed, and it was the reverse for Barack Obama. Frank Newport of Gallup described how this affected voter’s views on everything:

When a president of a different political party takes over the White House, as has happened most recently in 2000, 2008 and 2016, Republicans’ and Democrats’ assessments of the economy change essentially overnight. In 2017, for example, it became cognitively inconsistent for Democrats to believe that the economy was getting better and in good shape with a Republican president in charge, so their positive views of the economy plummeted. Republicans suddenly became much more positive about the economy. As my colleague Andrew Dugan noted in his analysis of 2017 Gallup data, ‘Republicans’ confidence in the economy stood at +46 in 2017, a 77-point improvement from 2016.’

The same pattern has been apparent in the past year. A Washington Post poll found that 49 percent of Democrats say the economy is doing well now versus only 18 percent who said that before the election. Among Republicans, 35 percent give the economy high marks today compared with 69 percent in September of 2020. Partisanship similarly colors peoples’ perceptions of health care, race relations, and other issues.

So in this environment, Biden’s approval ratings are actually quite an accomplishment. That 33 percent of Republicans give him high marks for this handling of the coronavirus is a testament to something—maybe reality can sometimes penetrate our epistemic bubbles?

Biden ran on unifying and healing the country. Arguably, he was uniquely equipped to win the Democratic nomination and the general election. But has his governing style so far been unifying? Yes and no. His inaugural address hit all the right notes, and his low-key handling of the office has served to relieve the national migraine that the Trump years caused.

Biden is clearly gambling that putting vaccines in people’s arms and deposits in their checking accounts will be enough to transcend whatever kulturkampf the Fox News ecosystem is currently spinning up. And that may work out for him.

On the other hand, since he ran to be a national healer, there are some pitfalls he might want to avoid. Several observers I spoke to cited Biden’s race rhetoric, for example, as unhelpful. David French, a conservative who wishes Biden well, recalled that verbal excess on this subject has been a weakness for Biden. In 2012, he told an African-American audience that Republicans wanted to “put ya’ll back in chains.” His recent comment on Georgia’s election law as “Jim Crow on steroids” was ridiculous (though the Georgia law was passed for bad faith reasons and did impose some new burdens, while lightening others).

Biden is passionate about racial justice and has included a racial element in many of his proposals, including clean energy, infrastructure, agriculture, and small business loans. His heart is in the right place, but is it politically savvy?

David Frum, citing a newly published study by Micah English and Joshua Kalla, agrees that toning down the racial appeals is advisable. English and Kalla tested whether pitching reforms as attempts to atone for past discrimination were effective or ineffective, compared with class-based or neutral appeals. For example, they compared a neutral framing of a policy on housing affordability to race- and class-based formulations. The neutral framing said, “Some Democrats are proposing a housing affordability policy that would help ensure that every American has a place to live. The policy would allow for smaller, lower-cost homes . . . to be built in middle and upper-class neighborhoods . . .” The race frame read:

A century of housing and land use policies denied Black households access to homeownership and neighborhood opportunities afforded to white households. These racially discriminatory housing policies have combined to profoundly disadvantage Black households, with lasting, intergenerational impact. These intergenerational impacts go a long way toward explaining the racial disparities we see today in wealth, income, and educational outcomes for Black Americans. Democrats say that this is why promoting housing affordability will also promote racial justice.

They also offered a class-based appeal (“Housing is the single largest expense for the average American . . .” ) along with one that combined race and class arguments. Their results showed that couching reforms in the language of racial justice did nothing to increase support for the proposals even among Blacks and Democrats, but did provoke a backlash among Republicans. A class frame, by contrast, increased the likelihood that white voters would see the policy as “benefiting people like me.” A class appeal was also linked with more respondents of all subgroups saying the policy was “fair.” Interestingly, Black respondents were just as swayed by the class frame as by the race frame.

The history cited above about discrimination in housing is true, by the way, but that doesn’t mean it’s the wisest political appeal in a multi-ethnic society. By contrast, if Biden were to take Sen. Tim Scott’s police reform ideas seriously, he might defuse some Republican resentment. (And even if it doesn’t pacify Republicans, it’s the right thing to do.)

Ben Wittes of the Brookings Institution and Lawfare also stressed to me that the Biden administration should be meeting “on a weekly basis” with Republicans “if only for show.” Biden met with a group of Republican senators to discuss the COVID relief bill, but has essentially disregarded Republican counter offers. Negative partisanship may be at a boil, and yet 60 percent of Americans told the Washington Post that the president ought to be willing to make “major changes” to his proposals so as to gain Republican support, versus only 30 percent who thought he should try to push through his legislation as is.

Biden inherited a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Whatever criticisms one can lodge about this or that, he deserves our lasting gratitude for restoring decency, normal order, and sanity to the business of governing. Whether it will be enough to reverse the slide into chaos remains uncertain, but defusing our deep mutual loathing, to the degree he can, should be a high priority.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].