Vulnerable Dems Need to Run With, Not From, Biden

If Dems use the recent dip in the polls as a reason to walk away from the Biden agenda, they will doom their majorities

On paper, August is the month that Washington, DC shuts down. Congress is out of town. It’s when presidents — and their staff — try to take some time off. It never really works out that way. Events have a way of interrupting the best-laid vacation plans. Maybe it’s bad luck or bad timing, but August traditionally tends to be the most politically brutal month for presidents. President Bush’s presidency functionally ended when he mismanaged Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. President Obama dealt with a myriad of crises in various Augusts, including an Ebola outbreak, the rise of ISIS, and the downgrade of the U.S. credit rating.

But by the standards of bad presidential Augusts, 2021 might take the cake. From dealing with the withdrawal in Afghanistan to a self-destructive, self-important cabal of Centrists, the Delta surge, a hurricane hitting the Gulf, fires in the West, and a series of malicious Supreme Court decisions, the torrent of bad news has been unrelenting. As is true with all bad Presidential Augusts, this one continued into September.

While public polls differ on the degree, there is no question that the bad news of the last month has taken its toll on President Biden. At the beginning of July, Biden’s approval was 52/43 in the FiveThirtyEight average. On September 5, it was 45.9/48.4. The President is underwater for the first time in his presidency.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released on Sunday demonstrated the challenges for Biden as he heads into the fall:

Biden’s overall approval rating fell from 50 percent to 44 percent from June, also dragged down by 2-to-1 disapproval for his handling of Afghanistan following a chaotic withdrawal. Biden’s ratings for handling the economy also have declined, from 52 percent positive in April to 45 percent in the latest survey.

The dip comes at an unfortunate time. A razor-thin and incredibly vulnerable Democratic Congressional majority is preparing to make some consequential decisions about how big and bold to go on the Biden agenda.

The conventional wisdom is that vulnerable members of Congress embrace a popular president and hide from a less popular one. 

As if right on cue, Joe Manchin published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for a “strategic pause” in consideration of the Biden economic and families agenda. Putting aside the odd choice to communicate with one’s colleagues and constituents through a Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper as opposed to a phone call or a town hall, Manchin’s approach could be a disaster for Democrats (and the planet).

Instead of hiding from Biden or looking for ways to distance themselves, Democrats need to hold President Biden and his agenda even closer. Whether you represent a Democratic stronghold, purple district, or part of MAGA country, it’s time to rally around Joe Biden and his agenda.

Narrative Politics

President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has been by far the most dominant news story this month. Traditionally, American political concerns have stopped at the water’s edge. Sadly, the majority of Americans have paid scant attention to the war in Afghanistan for the last twenty years. Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan remains very popular despite immense (and often unfair) criticism of the plan’s execution. All of this raises the question: why has Afghanistan been so politically impactful? Without a doubt, the tragic death of thirteen soldiers during a mission so inextricably tied to the president’s decision is the driving force. But notably, the polls had started to dip when the Taliban first took Kabul. There is something else at play.

Political narratives reign supreme. The direction of the narrative is much more important than the details. They are often binary. Are you up or down? Winning or losing? Strong or weak? This was always true in a sense, but political narratives are even more powerful now. Before social media, you opted into consuming political content. Swathes of the public could walk around blithely unaware of the D.C. cognoscenti and their determinations as to whether the president was winning or losing. Now, simply logging onto Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. means being inundated with headline after headline. If the bulk of those headlines are negative, they will have an outsized impact on your impression of the president.

Imagine what that experience has been over the last couple of weeks given the tone of the coverage of Biden and Afghanistan. Navigator Research asked voters what positive and negative things they had heard recently about President Biden. Nearly eight in ten reported hearing something negative. Per the word cloud below, those responses were overwhelmingly about Afghanistan.

When you combine a dynamic news story like leaving Afghanistan with growing pessimism about COVID, it’s not a surprise that President Biden has taken a hit in the polls. The best response to a run of bad news is to go find some good news. The media will hammer their “president on the ropes” narrative until there is some sort of circuit breaker that will force them to move to their second favorite narrative — “the comeback.” Like all advice offered in the form of newsletters, podcasts, and unsolicited emails, this is conceptually easy, but difficult to execute. Fortunately, the opportunity for a narrative-shifting circuit breaker is right there. It’s completely under Democratic control. Changing the narrative depends on a level of Democratic Party unity and discipline that has been somewhat lacking in recent weeks.

A Congressional Circuit Breaker

Political panic is an unfortunate and frequent attribute among vulnerable Congressional Democrats. At the first sign of political trouble for the president, they tend to run for the wings — looking for opportunities to distance themselves. Some Democrats — like former Senator Mark Udall — will leave their state rather than appear on camera with their president. This sort of behavior is an article of faith to mediocre political consultants who have yet to wake up and adjust their approach or reflect on the fact that the ‘90s are over.

Presidential approval is highly correlated with midterm success. In other words, the more popular the president, the better his party will do in the midterm elections. Therefore, criticizing the president to prove your independence fuels the narrative of a weakened president. Weakness makes our chances of winning reelection worse, not better.

It’s pretty simple — Democrats that want to win reelection need to adopt a strategy that strengthens Biden.

Biden’s approval ratings likely need to be above 50 to give Democrats a fighting shot at keeping the House and expanding our Senate majority. The good news is that raising Biden’s approval is achievable. Per the Navigator poll, the bulk of the drop is coming from Democrats — a group that is looking for a reason to come home.

It’s difficult to think of a better way to please these Democratic voters than passing Joe Biden’s big, bold, popular economic agenda. With control of the House and Senate, there is literally nothing Republicans can do to stop it. Our fate is in our hands. This is why Manchin’s op-ed is so concerning. As Jonathan Chait wrote in New York Magazine:

The danger is that this pause sets off a cycle of failure. Wealthy interests are only belatedly mobilizing against the bill now. As Republican lobbyist Liam Donovan notes, the Democrats’ best chance is to move as fast as possible. Delay creates the impression of dysfunction, making Biden and Congress less popular, in turn reducing the popularity of any bill they pass, in turn making Congress more reluctant to support it. Even if Manchin doesn’t want to destroy Biden’s presidency, he may do so by setting off  a vortex of failure he loses the ability to escape.

There will be intraparty debates about what makes it into the Build Back Better bill — as there should be. But one lesson to take from the passing of the Affordable Care Act is that how a bill passes matters almost as much as if it passes. A series of nasty intraparty fights, special interest giveaways, and side deals will knock some of the sheen off this much-needed victory. If — and hopefully when — Joe Biden signs the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and a large-scale jobs and families plan it will be a historic policy transformation. A progressive triumph in the works for more than a decade. Let’s rally behind the president and work with a common purpose for our common political interests.

The policy challenges in Afghanistan are immense. Navigating them successfully is table stakes for the Biden Administration. While I believe history will ultimately validate the courage that President Biden showed in ending the war, I do not believe anything in the short term will change the narrative about the withdrawal. The media is too culturally hostile towards the decision he made and the impression is too deep. Therefore, the best and perhaps only opportunity to right the political ship is a big win in Congress. The month of September will either end with a resurgent Biden and an enthusiastic Democratic base or a weakened president in a divided party.

The choice is ours.