Most presidencies begin on a positive note with a modicum of pomp and circumstance befitting the elected leader of the world’s oldest continuous democracy. Joe Biden’s inauguration, with Lady Gaga performing, was no exception, if one overlooked the razor wire and thousands of armed troops patrolling the National Mall.
In his inaugural address, just two weeks after the Capitol riot, Biden put much emphasis on democracy and the importance of preserving it. Few Americans would disagree. Nor would they take issue with his frequent references to the need for unity after what was not only a squeaker of an election but one of the most divisive in recent memory.
Biden told the country, “On this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together, uniting our people, and uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.”
Nice sentiment, but was it sincere? Given the level of cynicism in the country toward all things political today, it’s reasonable to wonder whether Americans felt his unity pledge was heartfelt or just another politician saying what he thinks people want to hear?
We tested how the president’s unity effort was going in our latest Feb. 9-12 Winning the Issues survey by asking voters the following question:
“President Biden said in his inaugural address that he was going to be focused on unity. Do you believe his actions so far are working toward promoting unity or focused on his party base?”
On the surface, Biden’s numbers look passable. But at this early stage, most presidents get a honeymoon from voters, and his positive overall job approval in public polls follows that pattern.
In the case of his unity promise, less than a majority — only 48 percent — said Biden has been working to promote unity. Thirty-eight percent said he was focused on his base. Only weeks into his presidency, his numbers on this question should be stronger.
A deeper dive into the data shows that Democrats believed overwhelmingly that Biden was promoting unity, 77 percent to 14 percent, not an unexpected result. Republicans, however, took the opposite view, coming in at 26 percent (promoting unity) to 63 percent (focused on his base).
But here’s where things get interesting. In the survey, independents leaned toward the Republican view by 37 percent (unity) to 41 percent (base). It’s close but a bit surprising when you consider that Biden won 54 percent of independents in November. Even more interesting were the views of independent women, who weren’t convinced, coming in at 32 percent (unity) to 37 percent (base).
The unity messaging coming from the White House is failing to convince the voters he needs most to truly bring the country together. With an almost evenly divided Congress, the administration’s refusal to include Republicans as partners in the COVID-19 relief discussions first exposed the emptiness of his calls for unity. As did the decision by congressional Democrats to ram through the $1.9 trillion package using reconciliation instead of negotiation. It’s hard to imagine a less unifying message to send Republican leaders.
More concerning for the Biden team, when drilling down into specifics, is the fact that outside the Democratic base, voters oppose many of the administration’s economic decisions so far. Alarm bells ought to be ringing in the West Wing when it comes to Biden’s promise to repeal the 2017 tax cuts.
In the same Winning the Issues survey, we found that voters, by a surprisingly wide 2-to-1 margin, believe the economic recovery from COVID-19 would be better helped by keeping the tax cuts in place (51 percent) than by repealing the tax cuts (24 percent).
So far, Biden’s economic plans fail the unity test.
His extreme energy proposals are facing some headwinds of their own. Pushing the progressives’ Green New Deal when gas prices are rising nationally gives new meaning to the phrase, “Timing is everything in politics.”
Despite the Democrats’ doom-and-gloom Green New Deal messaging, outside the Democratic base, Biden’s energy proposals have gotten a lukewarm reception. Overall, voters, by a 50 percent to 29 percent margin, believed the statement that a Biden executive order banning new fracking on federal lands and pausing oil and gas exploration would make it difficult for the U.S. to be energy independent. Even 46 percent of Democrats agreed.
With 11,000 jobs on the line, voter attitudes about the Biden administration’s decision to stop the Keystone pipeline (40 percent support to 41 percent oppose), with Democrats backing the decision (64 percent to 12 percent) but independents opposing it (33 percent to 42 percent) along with Republicans (20 percent to 70 percent), is anything but unifying.
On the Biden statement that combating climate change would lead to 1 million new jobs in the automobile industry, Democrats believed him 59 percent to 17 percent, but independents (28 percent to 39 percent) and Republicans (22 percent to 58 percent) didn’t.
We also tested climate czar John Kerry’s rationale that people who have lost jobs in the oil, gas and coal industries will eventually get better-paying jobs in clean energy industries.
Only Democrats tended to believe this (53 percent to 22 percent), while independents (26 percent to 41 percent) and Republicans (22 percent to 61 percent) didn’t. Interestingly, even within the Democratic Party there were skeptics: Liberal Democrats believed this (64 percent to 14 percent) much more than moderate Democrats (44 percent to 28 percent).
So Biden’s energy proposals fail the unity test as well.
Bad grade on schools
Then there are the schools. Biden’s decision to put demands from the teachers’ unions ahead of getting kids back to school has all the hallmarks of a president focusing on the base, and voters see it.
When it comes to reopening the schools, overall, voters were split 45 percent to 45 percent on whether they believe that teachers are raising valid concerns or that data shows schools can reopen with the proper precautions. By party, a majority of Republicans took the view that schools can reopen with the proper precautions (34 percent valid concerns to 57 percent can reopen), while Democrats took the teachers’ perspective (61 percent to 33 percent). Independents leaned toward the view that schools can reopen (37 percent to 47 percent).
But what should worry Biden is our finding that 70 percent of voters who believe students are going to be significantly behind where they would have been without the school closures said schools should be reopened. That group is rapidly growing, going from 21 percent of the electorate in September to 34 percent in February.
Clearly, Biden’s unquestioning support for the teachers’ unions gets a failing grade on unity.
His actions in his first weeks in office seem more like the Obama administration in 2009 as he adopts policies guaranteed to widen the partisan divide, not repair it. It didn’t end well in 2010 for Democrats.
Promising unity sounds good. Producing it takes cooperation.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.