Tom with the BTRTN July 2021 Month in Review.
The conventional wisdom is so accepted by the Democratic Party, particularly by its progressive wing, that it is hard to notice there is other competing wisdom out there. The accepted wisdom is that Joe Biden really has only two years – actually, now only 17 months -- to accomplish anything. Come the midterms, he will lose the House and the Senate, and however slowly the government’s gears are moving now, they will grind to a halt once the GOP controls even just one house of Congress. Therefore, goes the narrative, Biden must go deep and go fast, and whatever norms stand in the way – notably the hallowed Senate filibuster – must be cast aside.
On the surface, it is a compelling narrative. It is a fact that first-term presidents fare notoriously poorly in their mid-terms – over the last 50 years, they have lost, on average, 27 seats in the House. Biden has the thinnest of margins in both chambers, with only a 3-vote majority in the House and no margin at all in the Senate, save Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaker. And not only is history at work, but GOP local legislatures are rewriting election laws to disenfranchise minorities, who tend to vote Democratic, with impunity, and more gerrymandering based on the 2020 census is just around the corner. It is, indeed, a stark set of facts for 2022.
The only trouble with this narrative is that Joe Biden does not appear to believe in it. Instead Biden, rather surprisingly given his advanced age, is the one playing the long game: he wants to win the midterms in 2022, hold on to both houses of Congress, and win reelection in 2024, and he is pretty darned convinced that blowing up DC as we know it is not the way to go. And, right or wrong, this conviction -- his wisdom, not the conventional one -- informs every single decision he is making.
Biden’s unspoken thesis is, essentially, that first-time presidents are not fated to lose their first midterms; their dismal track record has been earned, and can be avoided. Bill Clinton flubbed out of the gate with his gays in the military fiasco and the failure of his health care initiative, which led to a 54-seat drubbing in 1994. Barack Obama may have saved the economy, but he rammed through his own health care triumph without a single GOP vote, undersold his own accomplishment, and then had to wait years before the ACA became popular; he was tagged with a whopping 63-seat loss in 2012. And Donald Trump wasted no time in demonstrating to the Hillary-haters in the middle that there was no substance to his simplistic mantras, and the non-stop lying led to a loss of 42 seats in 2018.
Biden wants to avoid all that. He can point to George W. Bush who, you may recall, expertly handled the early days of the 9/11 crisis, and managed to pick up 8 seats in 2002, well before he squandered his political capital on the senseless Iraq War. If nothing else, Bush proved that if you manage a colossal crisis well, you will be rewarded.
Biden has his crises – COVID, of course, and the resultant economic slump – and he also has his opportunity to re-shape America. But his entire game – his entire game – is to keep the Far Left at bay while not losing the middle. He is not betting the ranch on shelving the filibuster and pushing through a $6 trillion makeover of the U.S. economy. Instead, he is going to negotiate for the best deal he can get that Middle America can live with. He cannot pretend he has the mandate the FDR and LBJ had; he has to take what he can get.
Sweeping progressive change has happened twice in our nation’s history, with FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. In both cases, the president’s party held massive majorities. FDR had 57 to 76 Democratic senators (out of 96) during his years in office, and 261 to 333 Democratic representatives (out of 435), except for his last year when his House majority was a little thinner. LBJ had 64 to 68 Senators (out of 100), and 247 to 295 House members in his time in office. Both were also enormously popular at the time they were attempting to transform America, with LBJ well into the 60% range up until 1966 (Gallup did not have measurements in FDR’s time but his three winning re-election efforts speak for themselves.) They did both have to deal with cranky Dixiecrats, but the numbers were on their side.
It is almost a certainty that Joe Biden wants to stand alongside FDR and LBJ in the mythical Mt. Rushmore of sweeping progressive legislation that offered basic protections for the underserved and leveled the playing field for all. He too wants what Bernie Sanders wants, on the substance. But he lives in a different time and has to find a different path to the pantheon. His game plan is to rack up a string of successes, ride that record into the midterms (and ultimately reelection) and do more with those mandates and the breathing room a few pickups would afford. That record he envisions before the midterms would include: the American Rescue Plan, the bipartisan hard filibuster bill, a skinnied-down version of the soft infrastructure reconciliation bill (say, in the $2 trillion range, not the current $3.5 trillion), taming COVID through aggressive vaccination promotion, stoking the roaring economic recovery fire and avoiding war. That’s the ticket. Peace, prosperity, freedom from COVID and some major progressive legislation.
The bottom line with the filibuster is, he does not have the votes. You may only hear about Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, but if it ever came to the floor, there are surely other Democratic Senators that are loathe to cast a vote against the filibuster, the ones who represent purple states. I can guarantee that whomever carries the Democratic banner for the Senate in 2022 to flip Pennsylvania (where Pat Toomey is retiring), North Carolina (Richard Burr), Ohio (Rob Portman) and Wisconsin (perhaps Ron Johnson) will not be championing the demise of the filibuster, nor will Mark Kelly in Arizona or Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire as they defend their seats against tough GOP challengers. Even the modified versions of filibuster reform, such as “carving out” voting rights, do not appear to have Democratic support from the party’s centrist wing.
Biden’s management of the two major issues in the month of July demonstrate his fealty to the middle. The first was the reemergence of COVID, just a few weeks after the CDC announced its ill-advised “masks on the honor system” policy and Biden’s ill-timed July 4 COVID Independence Day victory lap. Both were premature, which should have been obvious at the time since COVID cases, driven by the new Delta variant, were rising by the end of June. Those trends took off in July, as COVID cases tripled for the month, from 338,000 in June to over 1.1 million in July.
While Los Angeles County and other municipalities declared mask mandates to counter these sharp upswings, and a number of major employees essentially told workers to vax up or quit, Biden and the CDC each took more measured approaches. The CDC issued guidelines that, while logical, were nearly impossible for the average citizen to navigate, calling for masks to be worn indoors in “high transmission” states. They also initially failed to release the data that was the basis for the mask guidance, which showed that vaccinated people with breakthrough cases shed as much of the virus as unvaccinated people.
Biden continued to exhort for vaccinations, and imposed mask-wearing on federal employees, including the military, but only went so far as to say that those who were not vaccinated faced weekly testing, rather than dismissal. Clearly, Biden is wary of “the ‘M’ word” and will avoid “mandates” at all cost – and it is that swing voter that he has in mind.
Biden’s entire approach to the American Jobs Plan, a.k.a. the hard infrastructure bill, has been to find a middle ground. His bi-partisan approach has been scoffed at by strange bedfellows on both the right (Trump himself) and the left (AOC among others, though not the suddenly pragmatic Bernie Sanders). Once again, Manchin holds the cards by declaring that, after the American Rescue Plan, he would not support any more trillion-dollar spending bills passing along party-line reconciliation votes. Biden thus has been dancing this middle ground of pursuing infrastructure talks along two tracks, the bipartisan “hard” infrastructure bill (highways, bridges and the like) and the Dem-only “soft” infrastructure bill (involving more “human” services such universal pre-K education, child care subsidies, free community college, extended child tax credits, extended family leave, climate change and health initiatives, and more).
His approach is inching ever closer to success, with 17 GOP Senators, along with the entire 50 Senator Democratic caucus, voting for cloture, enabling the bill to come to the Senate floor, presumably with 60 supporters overall. If it gets passed in the Senate, it will face a challenge in the House from the progressives, who may make demands that cannot survive a return to the Senate. But if Biden does get this bill passed, and the Democratic one as well, it will be a legendary accomplishment by the ultimate Washington insider, and would boost his presidency and his party’s case in the midterms.
Per those midterms, the Democrats do have some structural advantages that provide some counterweight to those nefarious GOP election laws, gerrymandering gamesmanship and the historical record. In short, there are four: Biden is popular (52% approval rating, a net of +9), his policies are popular (on most every issue, the majority of Americans are with him); demographics, which continue to steadily move blue; and Donald Trump, who continues to divide the GOP and divert them from their overall message (which is focusing not on the Big Lie, but on big spending Dems who are weak on crime and immigration) in any kind of unified manner. Trump and his threatened return also keep Democrats highly energized. These are not insubstantial factors. And one other thing – in the Senate, the GOP is having trouble finding great candidates to replace those retirees.
All of this is not to say that Biden’s strategy is inherently correct. The point is – that’s his strategy, and he is sticking to it.
That is, if he can somehow tame the Delta variant, which, at this point, is actually his strongest opponent, by far.
In the Biden era, this madness is largely confined to storylines and antics around the former president, of which there were quite a few this month.
· It was revealed that last December Trump specifically asked Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen to participate actively in the Big Lie, with the memorable directive: “ Just say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me”
· The Department of Justice directed the Treasury Department to release Trump’s tax returns to Congress. No surprise, Trump is fighting it in court.
· Yet another Trump associate, Thomas Barrack, was indicted.
· New books revealed all sort of Trump machinations and quotes, including Trump dishing on Brett Kavanaugh for his ingratitude in not backing the Big Lie: “Where would he be without me? I saved his life. He wouldn't even be in a law firm. Who would have had him? Nobody. Totally disgraced. Only I saved him."
· Trump has raised over $100 million to fund legal efforts in support of the Big Lie, and has spent very little of it.
· The Democrats began their House special inquiry into January 6, with riveting testimony from four police officers, and no GOP members loyal to Trump serving on the committee. It appears that once again Nancy Pelosi outmaneuvered Kevin McCarthy.
The madness continues.
BIDEN APPROVAL RATING
Joe Biden’s approval rating was unchanged in July, and his net held at +9. These are still reasonably impressive ratings in these partisan times. Trump never achieved the 50% level or a net positive any week in his four years in office.
HOW BIDEN IS HANDLING KEY ISSUES
Not surprisingly, Biden showed slight slippage in both his handling of COVID (given the resurgence, as well as fallout from confusing CDC guidance) as well as views that the country is on the “right track.” Biden continues to outperform Trump’s last marks on all measures save the economy, where he matches him.
While the “right track” measure has fallen a few notches in each of the last two months, it remains far higher than where Trump left it in January, increasing from 20% to 39% under Biden.
The “Bidenometer” remained virtually unchanged in July, moving from +64 in June to +65. There was very little movement in any of our five measures for the month. The new GDP number of Q2 was slightly ahead of the Q1 pace.
As a reminder, this measure is designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.
With a Bidenometer of +65, the economy is clearly performing much better under Biden versus where Trump left it.
This exclusive BTRTN measure is comprised of five indicative data points: the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP. The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.
Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, you can see from the chart below that under Clinton the measure ended at +55. It declined from +55 to only +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery. Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it. Now we have seen it move upward to +65 under Biden.
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Notes on methodology:
BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters. The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.
For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.
The Trumpometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Biden Inaugural on January 20, 2021, on an average percentage change basis. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump took office. The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.