Time for Biden to get out of the Build Back Better bubble

Enthusiastic embrace of progressivism sends his poll numbers crashing

President Joe Biden’s desire to create a transformational legacy for himself is blinding him to reality, Winston writes.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
President Joe Biden’s desire to create a transformational legacy for himself is blinding him to reality, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 13, 2021 at 6:00am

A couple of weeks ago, this column tackled the claim being promoted by President Joe Biden and congressional Democratic leadership that their $3.5 trillion Build Back Better plan would cost zero dollars.  Despite the obvious absurdity of the statement, two weeks later, Biden and company have not changed course and continue to cling to this talking point, with the credibility of an errant student claiming, “The dog ate my homework.”

We decided to dig a little deeper in our latest Winning the Issues survey and include a question on whether the public is buying what Biden is selling when it comes to the cost of his reconciliation bill. They aren’t, or at least a sizable majority aren’t.

In our Oct. 8-10 survey, we asked voters a pretty straightforward question: “Do you believe or not believe the following statement: The Build Back Better Plan costs zero dollars.” 

Voters, overall, said they didn’t believe the statement, 62 percent to 21 percent. If we were grading credibility, Biden and his Democratic colleagues on the Hill would be getting a big fail.

But the numbers among key groups were even worse. Nor surprisingly, only 12 percent of Republicans believed the claim, while 78 percent didn’t. The numbers among independents were even worse: Seventy percent said they didn’t believe it while only a meager 9 percent did. But here’s the real kicker. 

Biden, for all of his speeches and tweets and despite the best efforts of his surrogates and liberal pundits, hasn’t even been able to convince the majority of his own party that his centerpiece legislation won’t cost them a dime. In our survey, Democrats were split at 38 percent who believed to 41 percent who weren’t on board with the cost of Build Back Better. When you single out moderate Democrats, the group represented by Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, the numbers were worse, with only 27 percent believing the “zero dollars” statement compared with 53 percent who didn’t. Liberal Democrats gave Biden the benefit of the doubt, 46 percent to 31 percent, but he still lost almost a third of this group. Not good. Not good at all.

Digging deeper still, we found Biden also hasn’t made the sale with women: Sixty-one percent didn’t believe the claim and only 15 percent did. Among suburban women, a key group for both parties in 2022, only 12 percent believed it while 67 percent didn’t. Men were just as skeptical, with 28 percent believing the statement compared with 63 percent who didn’t.

Last but certainly not least, 60 percent of Hispanics didn’t believe the statement either.

Poll truths

But the “zero dollar” $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill isn’t Biden’s only problem. Public polls over the past two weeks have shown the president under water over his handling of nearly every major issue. An Oct. 1-4 Quinnipiac poll put his overall job approval rating among registered voters at 40 percent approve to 53 percent disapprove, and his approval among all adults was only 38 percent. An Oct. 2-4 Politico/Morning Consult poll found Biden’s approval among registered independent voters was as low as 35 percent.

Biden isn’t faring any better on the issues. Looking at approve/disapprove numbers from several public polls, he’s under 50 percent on almost every major issue.

According to Quinnipiac, among registered voters, he’s polling at 49 percent to 48 percent on the coronavirus; 41 percent to 55 percent on the economy; 39 percent to 54 percent on taxes; and 26 percent to 67 percent on immigration.

An Oct. 6-8 CBS News/YouGov survey of U.S. adults found Biden at 47 percent to 53 percent on infrastructure; 37 percent to 63 percent on Afghanistan; and 47 percent to 53 percent on climate change.

Worse for the president, Quinnipiac asked registered voters whether the Biden administration was competent. Forty-four percent said yes, while 54 percent said no. On the question of whether he has good leadership skills, Biden stumbled at 43 percent yes and 55 percent no. These are bleak numbers after what was supposed to be a summer of “joy and freedom,” promised by the White House.   

And what’s over the horizon for Biden, beyond his stalled infrastructure and reconciliation bills? Ships so backed up in the nation’s ports, waiting to unload, that the running joke is you can walk from Long Beach to Seoul these days. A chip shortage that is disrupting the supply chain for major industries and products across the country and warnings to buy Christmas gifts early or risk empty stockings. If Biden is not careful, he may end up being the Grinch who stole Christmas.

Meanwhile, airlines, flight control operations, law enforcement, schools, hospitals and the military are facing staffing pressures as the unintended consequences of vaccine mandates begin to emerge. Troubling jobs reports, rising energy prices and the inflation the Biden administration has been telling us was only temporary are dragging down an already wobbly economy. And then there’s the continuing problem of an out-of-control southern border and the possibility of a new crisis overseas.

Head in the sand

So what does Joe Biden have to say about all this? 

 “I’ve never been more optimistic about this country than I am right now. We are going to pass both the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and the Build Back Better Agenda — and start building this economy to beat the competition and deliver for working families.”  

So tweeted the president on Monday as he returned from Delaware to a Democratic Congress in turmoil and a White House facing the reality that the Build Back Better bill at this moment has about as much chance of passage as Chuck Schumer winning the Senate’s Miss Congeniality award.  

Biden’s problem seems to be his determination to create a transformational legacy for himself and his administration at any cost — and by enthusiastically embracing progressivism over moderation to do so. He seems to operate in a bubble these days, unaware of the political realities swirling around him, listening only to the siren songs of his liberal advisers and leaders in Congress, who play to his ego with proposals like the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. 

When your general in the field is Nancy Pelosi — who, when asked by a reporter if she needed to up her game selling the bill, fired back, “Well, I think you all could do a better job of selling it, to be frank with you” — maybe it’s time for a strategic withdrawal to regroup and fight again. Numbers don’t lie, and what they are telling us today is that Biden’s decision to abandon his campaign promise to govern as a centrist in favor of an ideological agenda that is out of step with the majority of the country is a disaster, and one of his own making. 

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.