Joe Biden's historical gamble

Voters have acquired a spreading case of buyer's remorse eleven months into Joe Biden's administration.

Biden has a terrible 41 percent approval rating, with six out of ten respondents claiming he has done "nothing" or "nothing." Summer coronavirus outbreaks, a tumultuous US withdrawal from Afghanistan, an influx of migrants at the southern border, Democratic Party infighting over infrastructure and Build Back Better programs, rising gas prices, and the highest inflation rate in 30 years have all cast a pall over the White House.

Republicans have a 10-point advantage in congressional balloting as the 2022 midterm elections approach, the greatest GOP advantage since the Washington Post and ABC News first asked the issue in 1981. Pundits believe that the Democratic Party's ongoing control of Congress is nearing a breaking point. In 1994, amid a comparable low point in his presidency, Bill Clinton confessed, “We still haven’t quite got the rhythm right.” 

Biden has staked his political future on James Carville's famous aphorism, "It's the economy, stupid!" Over the next ten years, his $1 trillion infrastructure package, paired with the Build Back Better initiative, is expected to generate 1.5 million new employment. Biden stated at the White House infrastructure signing ceremony, “I truly believe that 50 years from now, historians are going to look back at this moment and say, ‘That’s the moment America began to win the competition of the 21st century.’” Biden’s bet is that by 2024, Americans will see evidence of his prophesy coming to fruition as roads, bridges, railroads and airports get fixed; lead pipes are removed; and broadband finally arrives to hard-to-reach rural communities.

With his human infrastructure bill, Biden is taking another major risk. The legislation passed by the House currently includes funding for universal pre-school for three and four-year-olds, extends the child care tax credit for another year, includes a four-week paid family leave program, includes provisions for home health care for the elderly and disabled, expands ObamaCare subsidies and allows Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, and includes several environmental safeguards and tax credits that address these issues.

Both measures are well-liked: According to one survey, 63 percent of individuals in the United States favor Biden's infrastructure initiative, and 58 percent approve spending $2 trillion to combat climate change and expand preschool, health care, and other social services. While numerous sections in the Build Back Better plan will expire unless they are renewed by Congress in the future years, Biden is wagering that they would be so popular that even a Republican-controlled Congress would be afraid to repeal them.

Joe Biden's wager is comparable to one made by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Voters in 1982 suffered from a serious case of buyer's remorse. Reagan had a dismal 43 percent approval rating. Fifty-six percent disapproved of his economic performance, and a whopping 70 percent gave him a failing grade on unemployment management. Unemployment was hovering about 10.8% on Election Day that year, and people were skeptical of Reaganomics' ability to function in the long run. Republicans knew that Dr. Reagan's solution was "a riverboat risk," as Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) put it, while Reagan bet that his tax and budget cuts were the proper economic medicine.

During the midterm campaign, Democrats pounded Reagan with the phrase, "It isn't fair; it's Republican." "Is it news that some dude down in South Succotash somewhere has just been laid off, that he should be interviewed nationwide?" an enraged Reagan demanded. Reagan's de facto majority of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats was eroded in 1982. With the addition of 26 Democratic members, House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-Massachusetts) reclaimed control of the house.

By the end of the year, Reagan was so unpopular that 47 percent indicated they would vote for Walter Mondale for president in 1984, while only 41 percent said they would vote for Reagan. Reagan joked with his pollster Richard Wirthlin about being shot again, referring to his terrible public image. (Ronald Reagan's job popularity increased to 67 percent after the 1981 assassination attempt.)

Reagan's poll numbers had dipped by 1984, although they had returned by 1984. Unemployment and inflation rates fell throughout the year, and the economy reawakened with newfound vigor. Reagan received 49 of the 50 states and a whopping 59 percent of the popular vote on election day. Reagan's power was such that historian Sean Wilentz dubbed the 1980s "the Reagan era." One may say that Americans have always lived in Ronald Reagan's shadow until the COVID-19 outbreak.

By 2024, according to Joe Biden, inflation will have abated, shovels will be churning the dirt, middle-class wallets will be fuller, and there will be an abundance of "Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!" That's a significant risk, and it's based, at least in part, on James Carville's dictum that the economy trumps whatever voter effect the cultural wars could have.

Joe Biden has swung for the fences like Ronald Reagan, and his legislative record is both historic and significant. The impending midterm elections, like Reagan's, are not the last retaliation. Biden's wager, on the other hand, will be called in 2024. All bets are off till then.

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