President Joe Biden reports Wednesday night to Congress and the nation on his first 100 days, technically not a State of the Union address but a de facto one offering an assessment of where the country is and his plans going forward.
The address comes at a time of continuing division, increasing unrest and more uncertainty about Biden’s decision to move his administration hard left. For three months, people have been watching congressional Democrats veer from more calls to defund the police to packing the Supreme Court to ending the filibuster. They are seeing the border overwhelmed and children packed into overcrowded facilities while the vice president, supposedly in charge, refuses to get within 500 miles of the Rio Grande.
There are some worrisome signs that inflation may be on the horizon as the price of gas and other consumer goods rises. But when the president holds his first meeting of international leaders, it’s not to talk with allies about improving the world economy or national security threats from China and Russia. No, he uses his political capital first on climate change.
Democrats themselves are divided over a range of ideological issues, with some off on political tangents that only add to Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer’s troubles. All of this has led to a nagging suspicion that the wheels on the Biden train may be going slightly wobbly.
So Wednesday’s address to Congress has a lot riding on it, but Biden can take some comfort that, at this stage of a presidency, people are still willing to listen. At their core, Americans want to be optimists, hopeful that each new president will unify the country with common purpose and a responsive agenda that addresses the problems they care about most. They have often been disappointed.
Almost every president has begun his term basking in the afterglow of an election victory that, after the inauguration, becomes the traditional honeymoon period. A large majority of Americans usually gives a new president the benefit of the doubt and the time to show whether the many promises made during the campaign and in the inaugural address were more than just words.
Biden is no different. He promised unity. He promised to work with Republicans to find compromise and common ground. He promised to be a centrist president, not a left-wing progressive. His policies, he told us, would be mainstream, reflecting the concerns of all Americans, not just those who voted for him.
But that Joe Biden is nowhere to be found these days. Instead, we’ve seen three months of Biden upending what were effective immigration policies, creating a crisis in the process. His job-killing economic policies, like the Keystone XL pipeline decision, are raising red flags on Wall Street and Main Street, and his obsequiousness to Green New Deal climate policies and trillion-dollar social programs makes his liberal base happy and leaves everyone else wondering what happened to the president they were promised.
There’s no doubt Biden has a big job to do Wednesday night to sell his multitrillion-dollar progressive agenda to an increasingly wary electorate. Part of his sales job we’ve already heard. The Biden team boasts that polls show his policies are “popular,” even with Republican voters if not Republicans in Congress.
There’s some truth to that, in the sense that voters often support very general policies. Who doesn’t favor better roads and COVID-19 checks? But as the old saying goes, “The devil is in the details” or, in the case of polls, in the cross tabs.
The poll truth
According to an April 18-21 ABC News/Washington Post poll, Biden’s job approval during his first 100 days is the third-lowest for a president since 1945. He’s over 50 percent but well behind most other presidents at this stage. His disapproval is the second-highest, with only Donald Trump’s higher.
In the most recent Winning the Issues survey (April 7-11, 1,000 registered voters), however, we looked beyond top-line measurements, asking a series of questions to better understand voter attitudes toward current and past policies. That generated some interesting results, not what Biden and his team have been arguing.
- Biden carried independents by 13 points in 2020. Today, 41 percent of them approve of his job performance, well under the 54 percent that voted for him. That’s a significant drop.
- He’s at 53 percent favorable to 40 percent unfavorable overall, but again, he’s underwater with independents at 39 percent favorable and 42 percent unfavorable.
- Forty-six percent overall disapprove of Biden’s handling of the border crisis; 34 percent approve.
- Forty-three percent of voters said the improving economy was the result of previous policies like the CARES Act and Operation Warp Speed, while only 34 percent gave Biden’s policies the credit.
- Forty-four percent said they don’t believe the March COVID-19 bill, passed by the Democratic Congress, “saved the economy.” Only 31 percent said they do. The measure was seen as “a government spending bill with too many unrelated special interest priorities” by 45 percent of voters, while 42 percent saw it as “relief dealing with the pandemic and aid for businesses and individuals.”
- Who do they blame for rising gas prices? Forty-seven percent put the onus on Biden’s new environmental policies, like the Keystone decision and halting new oil and gas leasing on federal lands. Thirty-four percent blame rising demand.
- Twenty-five percent of voters said the economy/jobs was their top concern. Climate change, Biden’s focus, was a distant fourth at 8 percent.
- Biden’s crushing tax increase proposals? Voters, by a 41 percent to 34 percent margin, believe that any tax increase “will slow economic growth and undermine the competitiveness of American businesses.”
- Fifty-five percent don’t believe the statement “Because of what has happened with Covid, I am willing to pay more in taxes.” Twenty-four percent do.
- Forty-one percent don’t believe the president’s claim that if you make less than $400,000 a year, you will not see one single penny in additional federal tax. Thirty-nine percent do.
Contrary to what the White House and corporate media are saying, on most issues, Republicans are not on board, and neither are independents. The Biden team ought to remember that honeymoons don’t last forever, nor do voters’ patience or confidence.
It won’t be Biden’s base that decides when the honeymoon is over.
Independents will make that call.
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, as well as an election analyst for CBS News.