Why are President Joe Biden’s poll numbers so bad?
Is it because of interest rates? Inflation? Crime? The border?
Is it because he’s too progressive? Not progressive enough?
Whatever your theory, it should take into account a curious coincidence: how closely Biden’s approval numbers have tracked the numbers from former President Barack Obama’s first term. Obama’s numbers slumped in the second half of his third year, 2011. In the middle of that October, his disapproval number reached 41 percent, not very far off from Biden’s 37 percent at the same point in October 2023.
The world of 2011 was a very different place from the world of 2023. The job market was weak, not red hot the way it is now. Immigrants were returning home, not arriving by the millions. China’s economy was booming, not slumping.
Yet if the external facts diverged, the internal dynamics of U.S. politics 12 years ago bore many similarities to those of today. Republican leaders in the House faced a mutiny from their radical fringe. Then, as now, that fringe was impelled by conspiratorial theories: birtherism in those days, elaborate fantasies about Ukraine and the president’s scapegrace son today. Speaker John Boehner barely held on to his job—at the price of a battle over the debt ceiling in May 2011 that pushed the United States to the edge of default.
Then, as now, the chaos in Washington was blamed on the president. The president did not know how to govern, people said. He could not work the system. “The leader who was once a luminescent, inspirational force is now just a guy in a really bad spot,” wrote a New York Times columnist in September that year. “Obama is still suffering from the Speech Illusion, the idea that he can come down from the mountain, read from a Teleprompter, cast a magic spell with his words and climb back up the mountain, while we scurry around and do what he proclaimed.”
Today, of course, the complaint is just the opposite: President Biden does not suffer from the Speech Illusion; in fact, he does not speak much in public at all. Back then, critics lamented that Obama was failing to pass enough major legislation. Today, Biden is condemned for passing too much. But the gist of the critique is the same: If the polls are down, the rational explanation for the unfavorables is that they must be the president’s personal fault.
Maybe it’s time for an alternative theory of the Obama-Biden third-year slump. Maybe the problem inheres not in the president but in the nature of the coalition a Democratic president heads.
The Republicans represent a smaller but more cohesive alliance in American politics. You may scoff at my describing the Republicans as “cohesive” in the week after their fight over the speakership, but that fight actually proves the point. Republicans in the House were divided over one big issue: Was it time to move on from Trump or time to rally to him? Speaker Kevin McCarthy tried to blur the difference. The pro-Trumpers rebelled, defeated him, and then rejected any speaker not 100 percent aligned with Trump.
The caucus seesawed between less-Trumpy options (Scalise, Emmer) and more-Trumpy ones (Jordan, Johnson). The more-Trumpy faction finally won when its opponents submitted. The battle led to a decision—a bad one for democracy and responsible government, but a decision all the same: total triumph for the pro-Trump cause, abject surrender by the less-Trumpy holdouts.
Republicans disagree on many issues, notably aid to Ukraine. But they occupy a much narrower demographic and cultural range than Democrats do. That’s one reason the Republican Party can generate an audience for Fox News and the Democrats have no equivalent: Republicans can converge on a more or less united story about who they are.
Democrats span a much greater breadth of racial, regional, cultural, and ideological identities. They are the big-tent party compared with the Republicans’ little tent. Just consider this question: Who is the Democratic base? Jim Clyburn’s voters or Elizabeth Warren’s? The people who follow “dirtbag left” podcasts or those who listen and donate to National Public Radio? The members of the Sierra Club or the members of the United Auto Workers? Do you find them on a Sunday morning at a church of praise, a farmers’ market, or working an overtime shift?
Among the consequences for the Democrats of this multiplicity of identities is a special vulnerability to partisan attack. Both parties are home to people who espouse unpopular ideas. But the most unpopular ideas associated with the Republican Party—banning abortion nationwide, cutting Social Security and Medicare—actually are official policy. The most unpopular ideas associated with the Democratic Party—defunding the police, opening the border—are not its policies.
In a president’s third-year slump, those not-party unpopular ideas can weigh heavily on Democratic fortunes. The party leader takes a lot of blame for things his party does not intend to do.
But this vulnerability also creates an opportunity. A Republican candidate cannot easily escape his party’s unpopular stances. A Democratic nominee can. Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis cannot fight their party’s demons, because their party’s demons are genuinely powerful and scary. But Joe Biden can fight his party’s, because those demons are weak and marginal within the Democratic coalition, to the extent that they even exist.
A small but telling example: In 2009, President Obama was recorded mocking Kanye West as a “jackass” after West had insulted Taylor Swift at a music-awards ceremony. This hot-mic moment was spontaneous, but it offered a noteworthy lesson: America’s first Black president was not automatically onboard with any and all assertions of Black cultural identity. Obama understood the power of the point: He called Kanye West a jackass again, on the record, just in time for the 2012 presidential-election cycle.
Political strategists of the Bill Clinton days called this kind of maneuver “triangulation”: the deliberate positioning of a Democratic president between the poles of left and right. Clinton’s 1996 messaging guru, Dick Morris, added a shrewd insight of his own. Many of the left-wing extremes have very few adherents, and most of those belong to tiny political sects outside the Democratic coalition. So a Democratic president can challenge those extremes at negligible political risk by taking purely symbolic actions. He can strike an attitude of ideological independence at modest partisan risk.
Morris persuaded Clinton to endorse positions such as advocating uniforms for inner-city schools—causes for which the opposition was mostly made up of people auditioning to be a punching bag on conservative talk-radio shows. But as trivial as this kind of “small ball” policy might be, it served an important purpose. Another Clinton adviser, Stan Greenberg, cited the “McDonald’s theory”: If the hedges outside the restaurant are neatly trimmed, customers are more likely to trust the food inside.
How, for example, do voters know which candidate is “tougher on crime”? Probably not one American in 50 is aware that Biden’s budgets proposed funding the hiring of more local police officers, whereas Trump’s budgets proposed cutting their number. Voters know that Trump huffs and puffs about stopping crime (at least crimes committed by other people), but they do not hear Biden on the issue as much. So they credit the candidate with no actual anti-crime policy and penalize the incumbent president who really does have one.
Immigration presents a similar challenge for Democrats. In May, Biden allowed the expiration of a Trump-era policy that used the COVID-19 emergency as a justification for barring asylum seekers from the country. If you watch Fox News, you probably know about that. What you probably don’t know is that Biden promptly replaced Trump’s temporary restrictions with a new permanent system. Those who crossed another safe country on their way to the United States will be refused an asylum hearing here. Biden is now negotiating a tougher border package with Senate Republicans that might end altogether the practice of releasing those detained while crossing the border into the United States.
Right now, Democrats who are worried by Biden’s polling numbers are muttering about the spectacular changes they need to redress the situation. There is talk about primary battles or a bold move to ditch Vice President Kamala Harris in favor of a governor. Not only do such measures fail to address the underlying problem—a new running mate for Biden would instantly become the next target of attack—but they would also invite a bloodbath of Democratic infighting that would destroy the party’s 2024 campaign without, in fact, challenging the stereotype that Democrats are out-of-touch squishes.
Some Democrats are even urging Biden to jettison his strong support for Israel in order to placate progressive pro-Palestinian voters. In this conflict, Americans sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians by a margin of at least three to one and as high as five to one. Pro-Palestinian progressives want to pull Biden after them into their own unpopular sliver of American society. But Biden won the Democratic nomination and the presidency by ignoring self-defeating advice from such quarters.
So, instead, the Democrats need some of Morris’s “small ball” pitches.
For example, did you know that the Biden administration has indicted more than 3,000 people for defrauding COVID programs? Did you know that under Biden, U.S. production of artillery shells will more than quadruple? Were you aware that the U.S. is now the world’s largest producer of oil, producing almost twice as much as runner-up Saudi Arabia, and that U.S. oil exports hit an all-time high in 2022? Did you know that the U.S. has become by far the planet’s largest producer of natural gas, and also the largest exporter of gas in its shipborne liquid form?
Every day, the president’s partisan opponents do big self-condemning things that are certain to alienate large numbers of voters. These go beyond the familiar litany of bans on abortion, government shutdowns, and bigotries of various kinds. Those political issues are familiar territory; they tend not to change minds. What does change minds are acts that challenge images and stereotypes.
The Trump of 2016 did a little of this: After years of Paul Ryan trying to take people’s health coverage away, Trump vowed to deliver better health care at lower prices. He was lying, obviously, but voters did not yet know that for certain. Now they do.
The Trump of 2024 and his party have lost the opportunistic novelty of their 2016 promises. Instead, they have cast themselves as cartoon villains: a House speaker who opens his tenure by defunding the tax cops who catch tax cheats. Republican governors who pass laws to allow child labor by undocumented immigrants. Republican senators whose idea of “America First” is to sell out America’s friends fighting for their lives. A likely Republican presidential nominee who endlessly talks of strength but who couldn’t open a jar of pickles unaided.
Biden is subject to all kinds of unfair and seemingly unconvincing criticisms. This old-fashioned Humphrey-Muskie Democrat is depicted as a socialist, a secret ally of black-masked anarchists, a patsy for extremism of all kinds. Some Biden supporters think responding to such hallucinatory accusations is beneath their dignity. But precisely because the real record is so very different, these bubbles can readily be burst with a satisfying pop.
Picking a fight with Kanye West worked for Obama. Photo ops with cute kids wearing school logos worked for Clinton. Biden needs to make triangulating opportunism work for him. Every day, the furthest fringes of American culture create even more lucrative targets for Biden to whack at.
Biden already drives in the road’s middle lane. Now he just needs to toot the horn to let the other motorists know that he owns it.