When President Biden addresses a joint session of Congress for the first time on Wednesday, rounding the bend on his 100th day in office, he will have a number of progressive achievements to highlight. Chief among them, he’ll most likely play up his aggressive response to the coronavirus pandemic, emphasizing the theme of “shots in arms and money in pockets.”
But he’ll also seek to turn the page, signifying a new phase of his presidency, in which typical questions of governance and legislation rise to the forefront. It sets up a moment of transition for a president whose promise to confront the coronavirus outbreak helped catapult him to the White House and whose handling of the pandemic has continued to be his strongest suit in the public eye.
Biden’s approval rating is far from reaching the soaring altitude that presidents in less-polarized eras usually enjoyed around the 100-day mark, but Biden is still riding fairly high. With approval from a slight majority of Americans, his rating is almost an exact flip of the negative marks that his predecessor, Donald Trump, received throughout his presidency. And as long as Fox News, Newsmax and a large swath of the AM radio dial continue to exist, it’s hard to imagine a Democratic president achieving a much higher level of consensus.
But if Biden never got a full-fledged honeymoon, as most presidents before Trump did, what he got instead was a global crisis — one that most Americans say they think he has handled successfully. In an NBC News poll released Sunday, no fewer than 81 percent of independents approved of how he was handling the pandemic; that helped the president achieve a 61 percent overall job approval rating among independents.
(The NBC poll is a helpful measure of independents’ views, as, unlike most surveys, it counts only the most firmly nonpartisan voters as independents, by excluding registered independents who say they lean toward one party or the other.)
Polls have also shown that the public widely supports the Covid-19 relief package that Biden and congressional Democrats muscled through last month with virtually no Republican support.
“He had three jobs to do here — beat back the pandemic, calm the country down and try to keep the economy moving — which he’s doing,” Paul Maslin, a veteran Democratic pollster, said in an interview. “Is that going to change his job approval? No, his job approval is not going to change, hardly at all.”
Rather, Maslin said that advancing a policy agenda would be crucial to the Democrats’ chances in the 2022 midterm elections, given the amount that the party’s base is hoping to see done. “The question is going to be: Who’s motivated to vote next November?” he said. “Can he buck history and motivate his base, and millennials, and critical voters in certain states and districts, to actually still prevail? We don’t know the answers to those questions yet.”
With much of the country having received at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine, just 41 percent of voters said in a Fox News poll released Sunday that they were very concerned about the spread of the virus. It was the first time since the outbreak began last winter that a Fox poll found less than half of the country’s voters saying they were highly concerned about the pandemic.
In the NBC poll, 61 percent of Americans said they thought the worst of the pandemic was behind us.
“The rollout of the Covid vaccines and the relief package, they’ve done very well, and it’s not very complicated: The Covid relief package was the single biggest piece of social and economic legislation since the 1960s,” said Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist and the director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California.
Going forward, Shrum said, Biden’s big priorities on issues such as immigration, labor rights and gun policy — which would need Republican support to pass — were destined to face a much steeper climb. “Those are very tough,” he said. “You’re going to have to compromise on some things.”
But when it comes to his next goal — a major, two-part infrastructure package — Biden is equipped with one big advantage, driven by a broader sea change in public opinion: His proposals to keep spending big — and to do it by raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy — are widely popular.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Sunday found that Americans were 14 points more likely to say they wanted the government to “do more to solve our country’s problems” than to prefer a limited government that left most of the work “to individuals and businesses.” That was a major shift from a quarter-century ago, when public opinion was tilted two to one in favor of less active government.
And a number of national polls released early this week have shown widespread support for Biden’s specific infrastructure proposals.
A Monmouth University poll released on Monday found that 68 percent of the country said they supported Biden’s plan to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure. And support for a second bill addressing what Biden is calling “human infrastructure,” particularly around child care and education, was just as high.
“He’s set himself up as well as he can with these two big spending plans: They’re both very popular, and the funding mechanism for them is popular,” Patrick Murray, the director of polling at Monmouth, said in an interview. “The only warning for him is that he has to deliver in a way that people actually see real benefits.”
Looking back to 2009, when the Obama administration passed a then-popular stimulus bill but largely failed to convince the public that it had made a serious impact, Murray said the infrastructure package was an opportunity to deliver results that would be felt by voters in their everyday lives, across the ideological spectrum.
“That’s the challenge that he has in front of him: turning the spending into something tangible that people feel they got a piece of,” Murray said.
Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, vowed this month to do what he could to prevent Biden’s infrastructure plan from passing. “I’m going to fight them every step of the way, because I think this is the wrong prescription for America,” McConnell said.
But the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that an infrastructure bill could be passed through the process of budgetary reconciliation, meaning that at least part of Biden’s two-pronged proposal could be passed without Republican support.
Still, even members of Biden’s own party — most notably, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia — have held out on endorsing the proposal. Manchin has expressed opposition to raising the corporate tax rate to 28 percent, from 21 percent, as Biden wants to do to pay for the infrastructure project, and Manchin has said he is wary of the human infrastructure bill.
On CNN on Sunday, he said he was “very much concerned” about the size of Biden’s secondary proposal, known as the American Families Plan.
Beyond that, Biden faces Republican opposition in the Senate to most, if not all, of the major Democratic legislation that has already passed the House — including the PRO Act, which would add muscle to the labor movement, and a pair of voting-rights bills that many Democrats consider essential to the viability of their electoral future.
Americans continue to favor the idea of bipartisanship over ruthless Democratic action, setting up an apparent incentive for Biden to moderate his party’s goals in favor of negotiation with Republicans, even though the heavily partisan Covid-19 relief package has proved broadly popular.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Sunday found that Americans remained twice as likely to prefer that the president seek common ground with Republicans going forward, rather than passing major policy changes without them.
But ultimately, the popularity of Democrats’ proposals may be enough to persuade the administration to maintain the move-fast-and-pass-things approach that it took during the pandemic, relying as heavily as possible on reconciliation and banking on the resuscitated economy to deliver them success in 2022.
Sean McElwee, a principal at the left-leaning strategy firm Data for Progress, said that if the Democrats could muster the unity to pass both infrastructure-related bills through reconciliation, they would potentially have a convincing story to tell voters in the midterms — even absent big legislation on issues like gun safety and immigration.
“It’s very possible that those two bills could satisfy the major Democratic interests,” McElwee said of Biden’s infrastructure proposals. “He’s going to be judged by the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan — and the real question is, How hot can we get this economy moving going into the midterms?”