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Opinion |  Joe Biden’s Approach: Speak Softly and Lead a Great Program


The US bailout is a bolder, more progressive economic package than anything a Democratic president has offered since the LBJ. But it is not, for the moment, a polarizing package. It’s less polarizing even than Biden, who votes just 12% among Republicans. You can attribute this to its popular components, but the Affordable Care Act’s individual policies were also popular, and the bill was polled at around 40%. You could say it’s the coronavirus crisis, but coronavirus politics are highly polarized. I suspect that Biden’s calmer approach to political communication sets the stage for a bolder agenda.

Opinion debate
What should the Biden administration prioritize?

  • Oren Cass argues that the president’s (as well as Mitt Romney’s) child benefit plans go too far in providing jobless money, and that “a program should ask recipients to do their part to support themselves” .
  • Jamelle Bouie, Opinion columnist, writes that recent pro-union comments raise “expectations about what Biden can and should accomplish as president on behalf of the labor movement.”
  • The Editorial Board argues that since “the pandemic will not be beaten anywhere until it is defeated everywhere,” the president should engage in strong “vaccine diplomacy” in addition to national efforts.
  • Gail collins, Opinion columnist, writes that while Joe Biden can be understood to be busy, there is “absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t start harassing” over the new gun control measures.

Some political science research shapes my thinking here. In 2012, Stephen Nicholson, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, published an interesting article called “Polarizing Cues”. In it, Nicholson asked people for their opinions on proposed housing and immigration policies, sometimes telling them that Barack Obama supported the policy and other times that George W. Bush or John McCain supported the policy. What he found was that opinions did not change much when people heard that a political leader in their own party was supporting a bill. But opinions changed dramatically when you told them that a political leader on the other side supported a bill – it led to big swings against the legislation, regardless of the underlying political content.

When I called Nicholson to ask him questions on the paper, he gave an insightful explanation of the results. Humans tend to see the diversity in the groups we belong to and the similarity in the groups we are suspicious of, he said. A Democrat knows there are many ways to be a Democrat – you can be a Biden Democrat, an AOC Democrat, an Obama Democrat, a Bernie Democrat, a Clinton Democrat. So a signal from any Democratic leader is weaker because he or she may not be the leader you care about. But no matter what type of Democrat you are, Republicans merge into your mind in an undifferentiated mass of terrible people, so a signal from their political leaders is stronger. The process also works the other way around, of course. A recent Gallup poll showed 88% of Republicans disapprove of Biden – the more Biden does the US bailout, the more they’ll hate him.

Then there is the book “Stealth Democracy” by political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse. They’re putting together a mountain of survey data to show that Americans have weak and shifting opinions about politics, but strong opinions about what politics should look and feel like. Many, if not most, Americans believe that “political disputes are unnecessary and indicate that something is wrong with government procedures,” they write. The more partisan fights there are around a bill, in other words, the more Americans begin to believe that something is wrong with the bill – if not, why would everyone be so upset? ?

Mitch McConnell understood all of this, and he started political wrangling to undermine Obama’s agenda. But Biden seems to understand it, too. When I spoke to Bedingfield, she kept revisiting Biden’s preference for rhetoric and strategies that “turn the heat” on American politics. But Biden is not adopting Washington’s usual strategy to achieve that goal, which is to fall back on modest bills and quarter measures. Instead, his theory seems to be that if you can settle the conflict, you can compose the politics.

I’ve argued before that Biden’s central vision in the campaign was that negative polarization – the degree to which we hate the other side, even if we don’t like our side very much – is now the most powerful force in the community. American politics. Biden often refused to do things that would endear him to his base because those same things would drive Republicans crazy. This strategy continues under his presidency. And partly because of that, the reaction to his signature legislative package, which is truly a set of policies that progressives have dreamed of for years, is not splitting along the normal red-blue lines.

Like any other communication strategy, this will work until it doesn’t. Biden will have his failures, as all presidents do. But for now, it is working, in defiance of the lessons many thought the Trump presidency had taught.

Speak softly and have a big agenda. At least it’s worth a try.

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