Biden Passed Lots Of Popular Legislation. He's Unpopular. What's Up? : The NPR Politics Podcast Pandemic relief, gun control and the largest investment into climate change mitigation and adaptation have all been signed into law in President Biden's first two years. And even though Biden remains historically unpopular, his party notched a very strong performance during the midterm elections. What is going on?

This episode: political correspondent Susan Davis, senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

This episode was produced and edited by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Research and fact-checking by Katherine Swartz.

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Biden Passed Lots Of Popular Legislation. He's Unpopular. What's Up?

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CLAIRE: Hi. This is Claire (ph), and I'm currently sailing through the Drake Passage on my way home from an expedition to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica as a Grosvenor teacher fellow with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. This podcast was recorded at...

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

2:09 p.m. on Monday, December 12.

CLAIRE: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but hopefully I'm not still seasick. OK. Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DAVIS: That is a very cool gig.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Wow. I mean, we - really, our listeners do so many really interesting things (laughter).

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: And it's amazing they can hear us even on the other side of the world.

DAVIS: I love it.

MONTANARO: The beauty of podcasts.

DAVIS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DAVIS: And full Democratic control of Washington will come to an end in just a few weeks. Republicans will take control of the House on January 3 and present a new check on President Biden's power. Today we're going to talk about the first two years of Biden's term and maybe what we can expect in the next two.

Mara, Biden is president at a time when all these old rules about approval ratings and public opinion just don't seem to matter in the same way. You know, a majority of Americans say they disapprove of the president, and yet 2022 defied the expectations and what it would mean about a referendum on the White House.

LIASSON: That's absolutely true. Historical rules only work till they stop working, and a lot of them stopped working this cycle. We used to think that the president's approval rating was tied to the economy. We saw during Trump that even when the economy was great, his approval rating wasn't very good. We thought this time that when the President, Joe Biden, is unpopular, it means that his party will do very badly in the first midterm, and that didn't happen. So I think that - we also saw in the polls that a lot of people - 29% of people - who said that they were unhappy with Biden's stewardship of the economy still turned around and voted for Democrats. So these things are not straight-line correlations anymore. We're a very tribalized country. And people were angry about a lot of politicians, including the Democrats in power. But they were also fearful about what Republicans might do if they came into power.

MONTANARO: Well, there certainly was not a straight line, but I think we had two major intervening factors. One was the earthquake of abortion rights in the Dobbs decision. And that clearly was a major motivating factor for not just women, but a lot of people center-left to center-right, frankly. And there were also a lot of extreme candidates. I mean, you had a lot of candidates who've been pushing former President Trump's lies about the election. And that just proved a step too far for a lot of voters.

DAVIS: But, Domenico, how can you square some of this in that, as Mara noted, a lot of voters don't approve of the president, but still ended up voting for the party that he represents? But yet, one of the topics we talk about on this podcast all the time is polarization, that voters are more and more and more polarized, but yet we just had an election where polarization wasn't necessarily the deciding factor.

MONTANARO: Well, you know, look. There are not a lot of choices for people in this country. You got either-or (laughter), and that's kind...

DAVIS: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...Of it, right? So even if there's a ton of disaffection with either party, which we see all the time, you really have to make a choice between, you know, what some people see as a lesser of two evils. Not everybody - and frankly, that shouldn't be the way everybody views politics because there are real things that the Democratic parties and Republican parties believe in and a direction in the country that they want to put the country in that are different. So, you know, voting third party makes it really kind of difficult to actually affect real change. I do think polarization was pretty big, though, overall.

I mean, if you think about, like, Georgia, for example. I don't necessarily think - I think it's not going out on a limb too much to say a Herschel Walker wouldn't have gotten 49% of the vote in a purple state, you know, 10 or 15 years ago. He might have - he probably would have gotten, you know, top 45%, probably. You know, that's - so I do think that that putting the shirt on, putting the jersey on - the D or the R - is what's most important. And that's why you see Biden's approval rating not budging very much. And it's kind of similar to what Trump's was.

LIASSON: Right. The politicians have high floors and low ceilings. They just don't have a lot of place to go. But, you know, the other thing we can say about this election is this was not a turnout election. Both sides got their voters out. This was a persuasion election about those tiny group of people in the middle - very few of them - but there are swing voters left. They do split their tickets, which is something we thought was extinct. But they did that. There are a lot of Republicans who won big for governor, for instance, where the Republican Senate candidate either lost or won barely. So there's a lot to chew on in this election, a lot of things that seemed confusing and challenged a lot of our assumptions.

DAVIS: When you look at the first two years of the Biden agenda, when I think of the vibe of it, so much of it was Democrats just despondent that they were infighting with each other over the failure to pass the president's Build Back Better plan. There were a lot of frustrations on Capitol Hill about the inability to move the big stuff, things like voting rights legislation. There was also a ton of fighting in the Senate because they couldn't and didn't have the votes to end the filibuster to make it easier to pass this agenda. But, Mara, I think this needs a bit of a reality check because as I sit here at the end of this Congress and the first two years of the Biden term, Democrats - and with the help of Republicans in many instances - have actually had a pretty productive legislative session, especially compared to recent years.

LIASSON: Yeah, look. If you hadn't heard what the Democrats promised and you were just totting up the scorecard at the end of the Congress, you'd say, wow, there are a lot of things that Biden passed. And a lot of them were passed with bipartisan votes just like he promised he would - the infrastructure bill, the CHIPS bill and the first gun safety legislation since the assault weapons ban was passed in the '90s. So he has a real record. The problem is the Democrats never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

DAVIS: (Laughter).

LIASSON: And they spent months raising expectations, biting off more than they could chew, spending months and months criticizing each other. But in the end, what they passed was significant. The problem is that they oversold and underdelivered, even though what they delivered by any normal metric would have been pretty impressive.

DAVIS: Domenico, I always think it takes a while for the public to absorb what Washington has done, right? Like, the immediate impact of most laws isn't felt right away. But we do sort of see a disconnect, I think, between voters and certainly how they view Congress. I mean, Congress has had record-low approval ratings for years, upon years, upon years. And productivity - of course, people could not like what they're doing, but productivity on its own isn't necessarily something that makes voters have more faith in Congress or that branch of government either.

MONTANARO: Well, I mean, just people overall don't pay very close attention to a lot of the nuance that happens on Capitol Hill. I mean, I think they hear a lot of sound bites. They hear about a lot of the - you know, the internal fighting. They hear about a lot of the sort of, for lack of a better word, impolitic things that people say about each other (laughter). You know, and I just think they see a lot of that, and they see seven-foot signs on gas prices when they go fill up their tanks and see that that's high, and they equate that to the economy and then say that everybody's just doing a bad job and then sort of check out.

But I do think that you're right that a lot of the things that have passed - that this Democratic, you know, controlled Washington with the White House in charge, you know, have passed and signed into law - they're not things that are going to be felt by people for a while - I mean, things like, for example, broadband in the Midwest or rural areas.

DAVIS: Electric vehicles.

MONTANARO: Yeah, exactly. I mean, there's going to be a lot of that kind of onshoring as people talk about, but that's because of the infrastructure bill and the millions, if not billions, of dollars that kind of went out there to a lot of communities that really they're not seeing quite yet. But that's the job of a White House and of the party in power who passed those things to make a messaging push for people to really understand what they're going to be getting from the things that the government has passed and voted on.

LIASSON: That is Biden's theory of the case for the next two years. He said that in his post-Election Day press conference. People are going to find out what we did. They're going to start going into effect. Bridges are going to start being built and broadband is going to be delivered. And people are going to understand what we did. And he believes they will reward Democrats for it.

DAVIS: All right. Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about what to expect in those next two years.

And we're back. And like every other modern president, Joe Biden's about to face the reality of working with a divided Congress. Senate Democrats will have a one-seat majority, but House Republicans will have a narrow four-seat House majority. That means they'll control the committees, the floor schedule and have subpoena power.

Domenico, recent history would suggest that divided government is not a recipe for success for most presidents. Do you expect it to be any different this time around?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, you probably have to look back to Bill Clinton when they had, you know, some successes on some smaller items. But really, recently, that's just not been the case. And, you know, people always say they want compromise, but they usually want people to compromise with them.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTANARO: They want people to come to their position for the most part. So, you know, I mean, we're going to see how this goes, but I think it's going to be difficult for someone like Kevin McCarthy if he wants to be speaker, the Republican from California. He's going to need that far-right group that has shown that they can have a lot of power if they stick together. You know, there's a lot of people who talk about Nancy Pelosi, and they've made her out to be a lightning rod for conservatives. But she's brought a tremendous amount of discipline and consistency to the Democratic Party over the last 20 years. When you consider looking at the Republican side of things and how many different speakers they've had and who's been pushed out and how, you know, it's going to be really difficult to see that moderates will somehow rule the day when, really, people have become much more ideologically cohesive.

DAVIS: Yeah, I think it'll be a question of how unified can the House Republican majority be? Because if they are and if they can advance an agenda and if they can speak with more of a singular voice, I think that they can be quite a big headache for Joe Biden, especially with the investigations they have planned. But, you know, the party is still pretty divided, and there's a lot of fights going on about the future of the party and who should lead it and what that agenda should be. And if they can't get their act together, their dysfunction might become its own story than their ability to sort of present that check to Biden.

LIASSON: And four seats is very, very narrow.

MONTANARO: It's not many (laughter).

LIASSON: And Paul Ryan and John Boehner couldn't handle their Republicans when they had bigger majorities.

DAVIS: Mara, how is the White House preparing for this new chapter? I'm thinking specifically about all of those investigations that Republicans have planned, especially into the Biden family.

LIASSON: Right. Well, except for must-pass legislation like the debt ceiling or government funding, we're really going to have much more investigations than legislation. And Republicans have said they do want to look into the Biden family - Hunter Biden and whatever they believe that tells the country about Biden himself. And I think the White House is getting ready for this, not just to push back, but don't forget, divided government might mean an end to a president's legislative agenda, but it gives him a very handy foil. And both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were able to use a Republican Congress or a Republican House to their advantage because, to the extent that Republicans look like they are just investigating or conducting witch hunts - I'm sure you will hear that phrase on the lips of Democrats instead of just Donald Trump as we go forward - so that's - I think Biden is looking forward to using Republican excesses against them.

DAVIS: I also think these investigations, you know, they - sure, they could overplay their hand, but they could also be really potent at weakening an already weakened president, at least in the eyes of the public. And if you, again, look to recent history, Republicans, many people thought, overplayed their hand when it came to things like the Benghazi investigation, the attack on the American outpost in Libya. But, you know, there's also an argument to be made that those investigations really did undermine Hillary Clinton and her pursuit of the presidency. And I don't know if Republicans are worried about overreach as much as they are, like, how do we maximize these investigations to hobble Joe Biden going into 2024 because the president has said he plans to run for reelection.

LIASSON: And don't forget, Democrats have subpoena power in the Senate. They can do...

DAVIS: That's a very good point.

LIASSON: ...Investigations too. So we're going to have dueling investigations. And also, you've got to look at these moderates in the House. Republicans, I agree, they might not be the kind of balance of power, but they come from seats that in a normal election, Democrats would have won them, and they're going to want to deliver for their constituents.

DAVIS: You know, it's the holiday season. Let's try to be optimists. Are there any areas of potential cooperation, you think, between a Democratic president and a divided Congress in this particular climate?

MONTANARO: There might be some things. I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: That's that Domenico optimism I was looking for.

(LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: The question is, will Ukraine aid survive?

DAVIS: Yeah.

LIASSON: It only survives if it has bipartisan support, which it has had until recently when there's been a weakening of Republican support for it.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And I mean, you know, the pessimism here is that I think the Ukraine aid thing is sort of a dark horse fight that's coming because you're starting to hear this populist left and populist right saying that they don't want to continue to fund this to the tune of billions of dollars, even though, you know, you have the administration firmly in support of Ukraine. So that's probably going to be a fight that comes. But, you know, it's hard to see them not coming up with more aid, continued aid. So that will - it will be an ugly process to get to a final - what the White House sees as a positive result.

DAVIS: Mara, do you see any negotiating room on immigration? The new Republican majority in the House, they want to make immigration a very key issue. It's an issue that has bedeviled many, many, many presidents. Do you think there's a chance here?

LIASSON: I have been optimistic and proven wrong so many times...

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

LIASSON: ...In the past that I would have to say no. What the Democrats want is some kind of a path to citizenship for the DREAMers, young people brought here when they were very young children, undocumented, and in exchange, there would be some kind of more border security. But I just don't see in a party that where the center of gravity has moved to the right and they consider any kind of legalization amnesty, how that could happen.

DAVIS: All right. Well, you can't say I don't try to put some optimism in the podcast some days, but I think we're going to have to leave it there for today. I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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