“Record jobs report. Core CPI down from June, to 0.3%. Unemployment filings at a post-pandemic new low. Bipartisan bill passed the Senate with 69 votes. Budget framework passed the Senate intact. Biggest 24 hours for vaccinations in six weeks,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain wrote in an Aug. 13 tweet.
Klain offered a succinct articulation of the Biden administration’s overarching political strategy: Govern well. Focus on “kitchen table” issues, not part of the “culture wars.” Assume voters will reward them for fixing the country and not creating drama.
While this competence theory of politics seems intuitively correct, we are now witnessing its limits in real time. From coronavirus vaccinations to bipartisanship to the economy, President Biden has governed well. Yet his poll numbers have been in a , likely because more moderate Republican voters who may have been initially positive about Biden are still Republicans and were essentially destined to oppose the Democratic president in this hyperpartisan era. That decline accelerated when two issues went sideways: the growing spread of the delta variant and the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
If Biden can do almost everything right for six months, hit one rough patch and then have almost as many voters disapprove of him (46 percent, according to an average of recent polls by FiveThirtyEight), as those who approve (49 percent), then the foundation of the competence strategy must be fairly flimsy.
As it is. Biden, like any other person who might be in the Oval Office, has a limited ability to affect factors such as how quickly inflation increases, how fast the Taliban will take control of Afghanistan and how contagious the latest coronavirus variant is. Even if Biden has the correct instincts, his specific policies might not work — these issues are complicated and dynamic.
And even if his policies would produce the desired results if implemented properly, he can’t guarantee that. On covid-19, for example, Republican officials in many states are intentionally subverting Biden’s strategy of promoting vaccinations and mask-wearing. Finally, even if Biden has the right policies and successfully executes them, there is no guarantee Americans will perceive that the policies have worked and give him credit.
Biden recently accomplished one of his main goals: reaching a bipartisan infrastructure agreement. But the media spent most of the day the deal passed in the Senate covering the resignation of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, then shifted focus. So it’s likely that the deal isn’t helping Biden politically because a lot of voters already forgot it happened — and, in any event, it hasn’t passed the House.
This isn’t an argument for the Biden administration not focusing on competence. It’s normatively good to have an administration, unlike the last one, that really cares about governing. It is also likely that Biden would be more unpopular if he were regularly screwing up things.
But this is an argument for a both/and strategy: The Biden team should govern competently — and also fight on more polarized issues instead of trying to dodge them.
Why? First, Biden can’t unilaterally end the partisan “uncivil war,” no matter how hard he tries, because the Republicans are so deeply committed to it. Biden’s strategy implies there are “culture war” issues to avoid and “pocketbook” issues to focus on. In reality, Republicans push almost every issue, from vaccinations to unemployment benefits to voting rights, into the broader, zero-sum fight between the parties. So conservative activists and politicians are opposing mask-wearing in schools just as fervently as they oppose the teaching of critical race theory.
In this sense, the idea that there are supposed culture war issues that you can separate from governance issues is misguided. In real life, all of these issues are jumbled together, and these partisan and cultural conflicts aren’t some sideshow separate from governance — they are the main event. They can’t — and shouldn’t — be ducked.
Many of the administration’s foibles, from its initial refusal to allow more than a token number of refugees into the country to its initial hesitancy to support vaccine mandates, are rooted in conflict avoidance, a desire to avoid putting Biden in a partisan fight with Fox News or prominent GOP politicians. That won’t work. Biden will need to directly take on Republicans such as Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, because they are waging war against his goals.
Second, even if Biden could somehow sidestep issues on which the two parties’ elites are divided, there is an electoral reason not to: Those issues advantage him, not Republicans. On a wide swath of issues, such as mask-wearing, the Jan. 6 insurrection, vaccinations, abortion rights, police reform, voting rights and transgender rights, a clear majority embraces Democrats’ positions. Fox News, Donald Trump-aligned activists and the former president himself have pushed Republican officials toward adopting positions popular with roughly 30 percent of the country.
It’s not that the Biden administration should focus solely on divisive issues and abandon the competence argument. Up until now, however, the reverse has been true — an obsession with demonstrating competence, an aggressive aversion to anything that might seem divisive. Biden and his team can now assess the limits of this approach and recalibrate.“