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Why Biden Might Avoid the Policy Sinkhole That Swamped His Predecessors

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The 2020 Democratic presidential primary was often described as a contest over whether the country needed a return to normalcy or sweeping change.

Joe Biden may have found a way to split the difference.

Democrats have proposed or enacted trillions of dollars in federal spending, usually under the seemingly nonideological auspices of coronavirus relief and infrastructure.

That tack has provided Mr. Biden a way to enact an ambitious policy agenda without sparking the kind of ideologically divisive fight that has derailed the first term of so many recent presidents. If the polls are any indication, he may be pulling it off: Around 60 percent of voters appear to approve of Mr. Biden’s big spending initiatives.

Over the last 30 years, nearly every incoming president opened his term with an ambitious but ultimately unpopular push to remake America’s health care system. It sapped public support. It contributed to the inexorable polarization of American politics. And it ended in a drubbing in the midterm elections.

It is far too soon to say whether Mr. Biden will avoid the fate of Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump, who all lost at least 41 seats in the House of Representatives in their first midterm. But by carving a middle path between legislative gridlock and a bold initiative to achieve a transformative partisan goal like health care, Mr. Biden is so far avoiding one of the most obvious pitfalls of modern presidential politics.

Washington is Washington, of course, and partisan politics reigns. Congressional Republicans have mostly opposed Mr. Biden’s initiatives. But so far, his opponents haven’t mounted an intense campaign to demonize him, his agenda or his presidency.

Instead, Republicans have entertained bipartisan infrastructure negotiations, while conservative media has focused on the culture wars. At times, the all-but-manufactured controversies over “critical race theory” and the removal of some Dr. Seuss books from publication have received more attention than trillions of dollars in new spending.

It’s nothing like the intense pushback Mr. Obama faced from Republicans over a decade ago when he prioritized health care. It gives Mr. Biden and his party a better chance to capitalize on what he hopes will be an increasingly favorable national political environment.

The most recent polls suggest that Mr. Biden’s big spending plans are all fairly popular. A CBS/YouGov poll this weekend found that 59 percent of adults approved of Mr. Biden’s infrastructure plan. Around 60 percent of voters — including a quarter or more of self-identified Republicans — approved of his multitrillion-dollar spending on infrastructure and health in June polls by Morning Consult and Monmouth University.

But in a way, the relative dearth of polling on the Democratic spending plans may be as telling as the topline results from those surveys; it signals a fundamental lack of public controversy around the proposals to this point. A ABC/Washington Post poll released this month, for example, did not even ask about Mr. Biden’s spending plans. Instead, it asked about the coronavirus, crime, race, voting laws and immigration.

The inability of conservatives to muster outrage in response to trillions of dollars of new spending would have been difficult to imagine a decade ago, when the Tea Party emerged in furious and all-but-unconditional opposition to Mr. Obama’s stimulus and health care plans.

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People protested President Donald J. Trump’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act in March 2017.Credit…Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

But Republicans all but chose to abandon laissez-faire economics when they nominated Mr. Trump, who proved in victory that it was easier to appeal to conservatives by stoking outrage over cultural issues than by arguing for limited government. Conservative lawmakers and media commentators reached a similar conclusion. They’ve leaned into those issues, not Mr. Biden’s policy, over the first months of his presidency.

Republican state legislatures have raced to enact new restrictions on teaching about racism in public schools, along with bills restricting medical care and athletics opportunities for transgender youths.

Mr. Trump himself argued for spending on infrastructure and coronavirus relief. The sheer size of his stimulus plans, especially the first $2 trillion package, most likely helped to normalize multitrillion-dollar spending initiatives and universal direct payments, which might have otherwise seemed like a new and jaw-dropping level of federal spending.

And even before Mr. Trump, it would have been a stretch to argue that “infrastructure,” in and of itself, was a central focus of partisan conflict. Republicans may generally oppose new spending and taxes, for nearly any purpose, but improved infrastructure itself is not an ideologically divisive objective like expanded federal health insurance coverage.

Liberals and conservatives are about equally likely to say transportation or energy infrastructure is an important issue, according to Pew Research and Monmouth polls from January, unlike climate, health care and taxes. Most Republican opposition to Mr. Biden’s plan stems from the new taxes necessary to defray the costs or the possibility that spending will lead to inflation.

There’s still time for voters to sour on Mr. Biden’s initiatives, just as public opinion gradually turned against the Affordable Care Act in 2009. And conservatives may, at any time, escalate their attacks on Mr. Biden’s spending, whether before the passage of the Democratic reconciliation bill or ahead of the midterm elections.

But if Mr. Biden manages to enact an ambitious agenda without incurring great political costs, he might find himself in an unusual and enviable position heading into next year’s midterm agenda — without a controversial policy anvil dragging him down. That would give Democrats a rare chance to capitalize on what could be an increasingly favorable national political environment.

In recent weeks, Mr. Biden argued that “the last time the economy grew at this rate was in 1984 and Ronald Reagan was telling us ‘it’s morning in America.’ Well, it’s getting close to afternoon here, the sun is coming out.”

Voters don’t quite agree, yet. Just 35 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with the way things are going in the United States in a Gallup poll conducted in June, still well below the 45 percent who said they were satisfied just before the pandemic struck in February 2020. That might change if the economy continues to improve and Mr. Biden’s agenda remains broadly popular.

Even an economic resurgence, though, might not be enough to lift Democrats to a midterm victory. Over the nearly 40 years since “Morning in America,” the relationship between economic growth and presidential approval ratings has gradually weakened. Mr. Trump remained unpopular, for instance, whether the economy was strong or weak. Mr. Obama never became too unpopular, even though the economy at times was quite bad.

The growing disconnect between attitudes about the president and the strength of the economy partly reflects an increasingly polarized country, with fewer voters who might ever be persuaded to say they approve of the other party’s president or disapprove of their own. But it may also reflect more polarizing presidents, who cater to their base and pursue ideological legislative agendas, like revamping the health care system. If so, a less polarizing legislative agenda may give Mr. Biden a better chance of riding strong economic growth to a stronger midterm performance.

Democrats will most likely struggle to hold Congress, no matter the national political environment. Republicans are sure to intensify their attacks as the midterms approach. The party has no margin for error in the House, where Republicans need to flip only five seats to take control. They might flip that many simply through partisan gerrymanders. And even the very best midterm showings typically involve the president’s party gaining just a few seats.

But if Democrats run up against the limits of what’s possible in a midterm, it’s still hard to wonder what more they could ask for. Bernie Sanders thinks the new Democratic spending plan is the most consequential legislation since the New Deal. Whatever the merits of that comparison, Mr. Biden is undoubtedly striking an impressive political balance if progressives think his legislative agenda can be compared to the New Deal while conservatives can’t be bothered to care.

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