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As Biden repeats Obama’s mistakes, get ready for 2010 redux

Build Back Better isn’t the top priority for most voters, new survey shows

President Joe Biden, here with Speaker Nancy Pelosi in October, has put his Build Back Better agenda first, ahead of issues that Americans care most about, Winston writes.
President Joe Biden, here with Speaker Nancy Pelosi in October, has put his Build Back Better agenda first, ahead of issues that Americans care most about, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It’s déjà vu all over again. The leaves may be turning. Christmas is just around the corner. But it feels like the summer of 2010 — Joe Biden’s “Summer of Recovery.” 

With unemployment still well over 9 percent, Biden, then vice president under Barack Obama, headed for the hustings in the months before the midterms to tout the “success” of their stimulus bill, passed the year before almost as an afterthought to the administration’s singular focus on the Affordable Care Act. 

Continuing high levels of unemployment may have had something to do with Biden’s public relations push that summer of 2010. On Election Day that year, despite Biden’s claims of progress over the summer, the country would see its 19th consecutive month of 9 percent unemployment or more. (This dismal streak would last, in total, for 30 months.)

Obama was elected to fix the economy. But in November 2010, people simply did not see the success Biden had peddled in the months leading up to the election. Now, President Biden faces a similar situation today, but he is operating from a far weaker political position than Obama, who won the presidency by over 7 points with Democrats picking up eight Senate seats and 21 House seats. 

Still, Obama made the mistake so many leaders make. He believed, just as Democratic leaders believe today, that he and his party were given a mandate for every policy espoused during the election, and all deserved immediate and unquestioning passage.

When presidents, in their first year, decide to ignore voters’ top priorities in favor of delivering their party base’s top priorities, they often pay the price in their first midterm election. For Bill Clinton, his Achilles’ heel, like Obama’s, was a push for health care instead of the economy. For Donald Trump, it was focusing his message on immigration in 2018, instead of a growing economy and his policies behind it.  

Biden didn’t listen to the electorate then, and he’s not listening now. Like Obama, who decided to put health care first and the economy second, contrary to the public’s priorities, Biden has put Build Back Better first, only deviating when a crisis emerges — like the delta and now omicron variants — and finally at a distant third, the economy.

Beyond messaging

Political leaders have to address the priorities of the electorate. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Biden is not just off message with Build Back Better, he’s off policy priorities; and it’s showing in his numbers. 

Overall, his job rating in our Nov. 22-24 Winning the Issues survey was 42 percent approve to 47 percent disapprove. His disapproval rating was slightly better than some polls, but it was still poor. On the issue of the economy, Biden was down 8 points, 41 percent approve to 49 percent disapprove. But that pales in comparison to his job rating on inflation — at an abysmal 36 percent to 52 percent approve/disapprove. On all three counts, he is not even close to having majority support for his current efforts.

When you look at Biden’s numbers through the lens of the 2022 midterms, however, the forecast for Democrats’ prospects is increasingly bleak.

On what will likely be top issues in the midterm election, they are underwater on every key component of people’s No. 1 issue — the economy. Respondents to our survey said Republicans would do a better job than Democrats at handling the economy (46 percent to 39 percent), gas prices (47 percent to 35 percent), inflation (46 percent to 34 percent) and the supply chain (43 percent to 36 percent).

Clearly, the electorate is losing confidence in Biden, his team and the Democratic Party to deliver what was promised. But with an administration that appears not just demonstrably incapable and out of touch but self-righteously intransigent, it’s not surprising.

With so many former Obama administration officials back in positions of power, perhaps no one should be surprised to see this administration zero in on trillion-dollar social spending programs rather than offering solutions to the cost-of-living issues facing most American families. These Obama alums are clearly just as out of touch with the electorate’s priorities as they were in the early years of the Obama presidency.

In a recent survey for the S Corporation Association, The Winston Group asked voters, “Which is the more important priority for the country?” 

Twenty-one percent picked passing Biden’s Build Back Better plan. Sixty-eight percent chose “dealing with inflation and scarcity of goods caused by supply chain problems.”

Independents were even more emphatic, favoring the second option 72 percent to 12 percent.

These results ought to be sobering for the Biden White House and the congressional Democratic leadership intent on putting passage of Build Back Better ahead of a kitchen table agenda that would address issues that people care most about.

Priorities unmet

Joe Biden was elected to do three things — win the war against COVID-19, bring the economy back and unify the country. He’s done none of them.

What this administration doesn’t seem to understand is that it is not enough for a policy to be popular, it has to be a priority. It’s not that child care or climate doesn’t matter. But if a working mom has difficulty paying for groceries to feed her child for the week and for gas to get her to day care, climate change policies that drive up energy and food prices simply don’t address her needs. 

Outcomes matter. After declaring victory over the coronavirus in July, Biden has had to retreat, first with the delta variant and now with omicron, leaving the country wondering whether he understands how to defeat it. On top of that, the country is more divided than ever, and inflation and energy costs are through the roof and crushing the average family budget. 

The political litmus test for successful policies isn’t whether they appeal to the base. The real question Biden and his party need to ask is, “Does what we’re proposing meet the most important needs of the majority of Americans?” If they don’t get the answer right, 2022 could be 2010 all over again.

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.

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