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What the Data Say About How Biden Should Govern

The words and deeds he’ll need to lead the country and build his coalition.
January 28, 2021
What the Data Say About How Biden Should Govern

Last month, I examined the exit-poll data to answer the question How did Joe Biden win the presidential election? I distilled six “hard truths” that help explain his victory. Drawing on those findings, I want to turn to a related question: What lessons does his victory hold for how he should govern?

This question may sound quaint after Donald Trump’s malicious incitement of a seditious riot at the Capitol and the partisan acrimony now surrounding the impeachment proceedings getting underway. But it is meant to be a tough-minded approach to address the challenge of how best to confront and overcome Trumpism, the dangers of which only became clearer on January 6.

It comes down to isolating and then reducing the ‘MAGA nation’ diehards, whom exit pollsters found were 31 percent of the electorate, while seeking to convince the remaining 15 to 16 percent of Trump voters that Trumpism is the wrong path for our nation. Success for the Biden administration will come from snaring over time at least some support from this segment of Republicans who have not swallowed Trump’s Kool-Aid, even as they voted for his re-election. This will mean, at times, pursuing policies and political messages that pit the wings of Trump’s coalition against one another.

Such a mutually reinforcing approach to politics and governance will require Biden to take one page from the playbook of Theodore Roosevelt and another from that of James K. Polk. He should pursue a TR-vintage bully pulpit presidency, marshaling public opinion as a fundamental tool of presidential leadership. Meanwhile, he should govern as Polk governed: Measured purely on his administration’s capacity to meet policy objectives, Polk had one of the most productive presidencies in American history.

I am not suggesting that Biden pursue popularity for popularity’s sake. TR always saw the bully pulpit as a tool for overcoming congressional and special-interest opposition to his reform agenda. Nor am I proposing that Biden seek to imitate the substance of Polk’s policy (he pursued goals that exacerbated the regional tensions and led to the Civil War) or that Biden declare himself a one-term president (part of what got Polk elected). Rather, I am suggesting that Biden would be wise to govern as if he will never again have to face the gauntlet of presidential primaries.

Both the nation and the Democratic party need to have the Biden presidency meld political popularity with purposeful policy. As Richard Neustadt argued in his seminal treatise Presidential Power, any president’s ability to succeed is contingent upon maintaining and deploying his public prestige. Having strong polling numbers is not an end in itself. With good strategy, though, public support can be leveraged to produce results—such as securing legislative successes and Senate confirmations of appointees, not to mention potential victories in special elections and the 2022 midterms.

Having begun with my conclusion, let me now explain how I arrived at this recommendation for President Biden.

What Voters Want Most

Let’s start with a universal lesson of American politics: For all elected officials, there is a gap between why they wanted people to vote for them and why people really did vote them into office. It is pretty clear that Trump was defeated in 2020 because voters felt he had mishandled the coronavirus pandemic. In effect, Biden’s voters wanted his presidency to break the back of COVID-19, as a precursor to sustained economic growth whose fruits are distributed more equitably to middle- and working-class families, supplemented by making progress on a trio of longer-term problems (affordable health care coverage, racial justice, and climate change).

This is shown in the AP VoteCast exit-polling data: 41 percent of all voters cited the pandemic as their most important issue in deciding how to vote—and they broke for Biden over Trump by 73-25. In that same exit poll, those citing the economy as their most important issue (28 percent of the total vote) broke for Trump by 81-16 percent.

The other issues that broke for Biden over Trump were health care (rated the most important issue by 9 percent of the voters), race relations (7 percent), and climate change (4 percent). Altogether, some 61 percent of voters picked one of these issues as their most important—dwarfing the 39 percent who selected one of the issues from the cluster that went for Trump (the economy, immigration, abortion, law enforcement, and foreign policy). Consequently, for Biden the key to meeting the expectations of voters lies in defeating the pandemic (both the efficient distribution of the vaccine and, relatedly, a slowing of new cases and deaths) and generating economic growth (especially as measured in terms of jobs and disposable income among middle- and working-class households), while over the long haul guaranteeing health care coverage, helping to diminish racial strife, and forging a consensus around addressing the existential crisis of climate change.

If the Biden administration can succeed at cracking the code of that cluster of issues, it will be meeting the expectations and aspirations of the overwhelming majority of voters.

Getting the Suburbs to Dislike Your Side Less

A second lesson: Neither party has a lock on the support of the nation’s suburbs. The suburbs cast a much larger share of the total vote (45-47 percent in large-turnout elections and 48-50 percent in low-turnout elections) than either the urban cores (31-34 percent share) or small-town and rural communities (17-22 percent depending upon the overall turnout pattern). In fact, neither party has realigned the electorate to form an enduring majority coalition, precisely because the suburbs have zigzagged between the parties by narrow margins. In 2008, Barack Obama carried the suburbs by 3 percent; in 2016, Donald Trump did by 4 percent. To realign the electorate, either the Democrats or the Republicans must once again consistently carry the suburbs by double digits (as Democrats did in 2018 and as Biden replicated in 2020).

From the Democrats’ perspective, if President Biden and his administration can hold on to their gains in the suburbs and increase their urban turnout margins by 8-10 percent, while shaving just 5-7 percent off the current Republican margins from rural and small-town voters, the Trumpist coalition will look a lot less formidable, perhaps even vestigial by 2028.

But that will be no easy task. For one thing, the suburbs are increasingly diverse when measured by income, educational levels, race, ethnicity, and religion (including lack of organized religion). They vary, too, from the inner-ring suburbs close to urban centers, out to the middle-ring suburbs, and then to the exurbs. These suburban voters see things to both like and dislike in the dominant wing of each party.

And what drives the dominant wing of each party? For the Democrats, it is the urban core. For the Republicans, it is the rural roots. This has left suburban voters in the uncomfortable position of voting more in opposition than in support of both parties and their candidates in presidential and congressional elections. Against the Republicans in 2006, 2008, 2018, and 2020, especially for president; and against the Democrats in 2002, 2010, 2014, and 2016. Therefore, if they want to forge sustaining governing majorities, candidates of both parties would be wise to listen carefully to the political concerns reflected in the voices of suburban voters.

Common Ground on Criminal Justice?

On matters of criminal justice reform, there are two views held by distinct but overlapping majorities.

A majority of American voters wants to end racial profiling, which they associate with violent, race-based tragedies.

And a majority of American voters does not support defunding the police.

While advocates on both sides of those two issues see the choices as mutually exclusive, polls show that most voters see a more nuanced reality. One senses that a majority of voters is actually yearning for an enduring and singular majority around criminal justice issues, one that protects communities with proactive community policing but does so without practicing racialism, which far too frequently ends in the tragic loss of life.

Politically, seeking common ground on criminal justice reform can prove tricky at best and treacherous at worst. Elected officials trying to find that common ground tend to run into what Burke Marshall—who headed the civil rights division in the Justice Department under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson—once observed: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall catch hell from both sides.” But there is common ground out there, as elusive as it can seem: Voters, especially those in and around the urban-based metro centers, want safe communities and racial justice.

Governing and Gridlock

To best nurture and ultimately to expand his party’s electoral coalition, Joe Biden needs to produce governing success. In this regard, the great diversity of the Democratic coalition can be a huge vulnerability. Each component has its own concerns and challenges—which means its own potential sources of dissatisfaction. Millennial voters may be more concerned about their economic challenges while minority voters might be more concerned about justice issues and seniors might be more concerned about the pandemic or health care in general.

This means that governing gridlock hurts Democrats far more than it does Republicans. And Mitch McConnell loves gridlock. “I am a proud guardian of gridlock,” he said back in 1994. He relished making gridlock his fundamental goal in President Obama’s first term. His gift for gridlock has continued into the present—contributing to the squabbling over COVID relief last year. Even with the Senate now evenly divided (with a Democratic vice president as the tie-breaker and a Democratic majority leader controlling the calendar), McConnell will find ways to stall and delay.

The deeper reality is that while McConnell takes grief in the media, the Senate Republicans he leads feel little actual pressure from their base to forge compromises with the Democrats. Meanwhile, the gridlock that McConnell’s Senate imposed in Obama’s second term contributed to Trump’s election in 2016 (by producing cynicism that invigorated GOP turnout and flattened Democratic turnout). Democrats can bemoan this irony-laced reality all they want, but they would be wise to realize that governing productivity will be a vital building block in their ability to offset the bleak recent history of a president’s party losing one or both houses of Congress in its first midterms (Clinton in 1994, Obama in 2010, Trump in 2018).

The Bully Pulpit and Policy Progress

With these lessons in mind, how can Joe Biden best position his presidency and his party for both governing and political success?

First, Biden’s overarching goal should be to produce results, right off the bat and continuing throughout his term as president, focusing like a laser beam on the issues the electorate cares most about. That means the Biden administration should do everything it can to break the hold of the COVID pandemic as a public health threat, leading into generating sharp economic growth by the end of 2021 into 2022. Then, as mentioned above, the Biden administration should look for results on expanding affordable health care coverage, crafting a new consensus around balanced criminal justice reform, and addressing the threat of climate change.

A silver lining: Generating results, especially with a 50-50 Senate, will require skillful compromises that expand rather than contract public support for Biden’s program and policies.

While the progressive wing of the Democratic party is made up of master diagnosticians of the inequities in social justice in our nation, a large majority of the electorate does not yet trust pure progressives to be the prescribing physicians implementing public policy. When liberals are just under a quarter of the electorate, as measured in the Edison exit polls (remembering that progressives are but a fraction of the total liberal base), it is a function of hard math that to enact progressive goals, Democrats need to do so by inculcating moderate and even a smattering of conservative support (in terms of public opinion) as a precursor to success in Congress. It would be foolhardy for Democrats to mimic Trump and naïvely act as if obsessing about one’s own base, while shunning the quest for majority support from the overall electorate, proves a wise approach to governing.

Thus, second, Biden would be wise to pursue TR’s bully-pulpit approach to presidential leadership. Biden should strive at every point to maintain and expand his own personal popularity, but also public support for his administration’s programmatic thrusts, so that public opinion becomes a battering ram to push a heretofore gridlocked Congress into timely action. How refreshing it would be, after Trump never crossed 50 percent in terms job approval in the public polling data, if Biden as president rarely or never dropped below 50 percent. The goal here would not be to satisfy his vanity; rather, the goal would be to give Biden the leverage needed to engage Congress in “action, and action now,” as FDR liked to say. Negotiated compromises that enact measures that the public is demanding—especially to combat the pandemic and its derivative economic toll—offer the best hope of locking in public support.

Third, the best way for Biden—like Polk before him—to make productivity his hallmark is through purposeful, albeit incremental, gains via by executive orders and statutes. Even though Democrats on the left will recoil from the need to compromise, if Biden and his administration make progress on the public’s expectations for the problems that need government’s attention, that will help the Democrats avoid the kinds of crippling political losses most recent first-term midterm elections have delivered. The Democrats need to find and hold the vital center of American politics and infuse it with meaningful action. Progressive leaders and advocacy organizations may scoff at half-a-loaf victories, but if they produce real results, that will help Democrats overcome five decades of consistent and quite effective conservative messaging that liberals (now read progressives) can’t be trusted to lead the nation.

Ironically, Trump’s approach to governing has done grievous damage to the public’s trust in the governance skills of Republicans. That in turn creates an opening for the Democrats. When you pierce the veil of the exit-polling data from the 2020 elections, one senses but can’t quite grasp that a relatively silent majority of the electorate wants the adults to take charge of government—leaders of action and competence and integrity and transparency. The question becomes whether Biden’s Democrats can fulfill that yearning; doing so will be essential for maintaining the consent of the governed. My hunch is that if Biden combines the best of TR and Polk, he can get his job approval ratings consistently up to at least 56-58 percent. To repeat, sustained public prestige, at a high level, is an essential ingredient in effective presidential leadership, even in a deeply polarized electorate.

Unlike Polk, Biden need not announce that his will be a one-term presidency, but he would be wise to govern as if it were. If Biden governs as if he never intended on facing Democratic primaries ever again, he could still respect his party’s left flank without genuflecting to it. Nor would he have to cower before the right. The paradox is that by governing in this way, Biden would be giving the Democratic party, including its progressive wing, its best chance for marching toward majority support. As Thomas Jefferson observed after his own narrow election win in 1800, great initiatives are not built upon slender majorities. When liberals are still less than a quarter of the electorate, Democrats will need the strong support of moderates—and would benefit from an ongoing alliance with Never Trump Republicans—to accomplish meaningful results in the next four years. Those who doubt such realities should study history and recall the importance of Lincoln absorbing Free Soil Democrats into his governing coalition and FDR doing the same with the old Bull Moose Republicans, who were his era’s swing voters in the Midwest and West, when he consolidated the New Deal coalition.

Both to govern effectively and to become the transitional political leader he promised to be at the outset of his campaign, Biden’s best course will be to use the bully pulpit to help in generating a productive first term, by either smashing or vaulting over gridlock. In his newly redecorated West Wing, President Biden should consider prominently displaying portraits or busts of Polk and TR—within eyesight of every visiting member of Congress.

Bruce Gyory

Bruce Gyory is a Democratic political strategist and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY-Albany.