What People Don’t Know About The Biden Record

David Leonhardt – NYT

Good morning. We’re covering public opinion about Biden’s record — as well as an Israeli strike, Sudan and summer concerts.President Biden, seen through a metal support, speaking at a rally in Philadelphia.President Biden Yuri Gripas for The New York Times

Fight theory

Polls show that many of the policies enacted by President Biden are popular. His measures to reduce the cost of insulin and other drugs receive support from more than 80 percent of Americans. His infrastructure bill, his hawkish approach to China and his all-of-the-above energy policy, which combines expanded oil drilling with clean-energy subsidies, are popular, too.

But voters obviously like some of his policies more than others. And an unusual pattern seems to be hurting Biden’s re-election campaign: Voters are less aware of his most popular policies than his more divisive ones.

The chart below captures the pattern. It is based on a poll last year by YouGov and Blueprint that asked voters, in separate questions, whether they supported various policies and whether they were aware that Biden had enacted them:A chart shows the support for versus the awareness of 20 of President Biden's policies. Some of the president's most popular policies, like reducing the federal deficit, capping Medicare drug costs, deploying more border agents and increasing oil and gas drilling are among his least known.Source: Blueprint/YouGov poll of 1,063 registered voters conducted Oct. 26 to Nov. 2, 2023. | By The New York Times

Canceling student debt and sending aid to Ukraine, for example, receive majority support, but not overwhelming support. Those are also among the policies that voters know best.

Increasing police funding and capping Medicare costs, by contrast, are extremely popular — and somewhat obscure. “We have found this disconnect between what voters care about and what they think Biden cares about,” said Evan Roth Smith of Blueprint, a Democratic research group.

In today’s newsletter, I’ll try to make sense of the disconnect, with help from an idea that a political strategist recently explained to me: fight theory.

Ukraine vs. bank fees

Biden’s biggest weakness in the 2024 campaign is arguably the cost of living. (His age and his record on immigration are also high on the list.) Annual inflation has averaged 5.5 percent during his presidency, up from 2.1 percent during the previous two decades. Most of the price increases aren’t Biden’s fault — just look at the high inflation in other countries — but many voters hold presidents accountable for the economic trends on their watch.

Biden and his aides have tried to address this weakness by arguing that he understands Americans’ frustrations and is fighting to reduce prices. When I spoke recently with Lael Brainard, Biden’s national economic adviser, she named more than a dozen items that she said were part of Biden’s “cost-lowering agenda.” Her list included several of the policies you can see in the chart above.

(To go deeper, here are previous Morning newsletters about Biden’s moves on “junk fees” and medical costs and a story by my colleague Zolan Kanno-Youngs about insulin.)

Still, many of these policies receive relatively little attention. Compare how often you hear about, say, Biden’s moves to reduce credit-card late fees or the cost of hearing aids with how often you hear about Ukraine, Gaza, abortion, immigration or Donald Trump’s trial.

Why is this?

Adam Green, co-founder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a Democratic-aligned group, blames what he calls fight theory. “It’s not enough to have positive messaging,” Green said. “Voters must see drama, clash and an ongoing saga in order for our message to break through a cluttered news environment.”

Abortion and immigration receive a lot of attention partly because the two political parties argue so much about them. Similarly, student-debt cancellation is salient because it is a priority for progressives and anathema to conservatives (including the Republican appointees on the Supreme Court). Ukraine aid, likewise, was for months the subject of a debate in Congress.

These fights become the subject of political fundraising emails, activist campaigns, news stories and social media posts. Conflict attracts attention. The situation with Biden’s most popular economic policies — especially the reduction of medical costs — is somewhat different.

Quiet Republicans

Congressional Republicans generally voted against these policies. The Inflation Reduction Act, which is full of measures to cut medical costs, passed in 2022 with only Democratic votes. But many Republicans recognize the popularity of those policies and have been careful not to talk much about their opposition.

When Biden last year announced the first 10 drugs for which Medicare would begin to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies, Republicans stayed mostly quiet. They deprived Democrats of a fight.

But Republicans haven’t remained completely quiet about their opposition, and Biden’s campaign and other Democrats are likely to emphasize the contrast as the campaign picks up. They will try to pick more fights. One example: After Senator Tim Scott, a potential Trump running mate, introduced a measure this spring to repeal Biden’s limit on credit-card late fees, prominent Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren highlighted the issue.

Scott’s measure has little chance of becoming law while Biden is president. But if Trump returns to the White House and Republicans take control of Congress, they may well repeal several of Biden’s most popular policies and hope that voters don’t punish them too much for it. A goal of Biden’s campaign, Democrats say, will be to highlight that possibility.

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