Jonathon V. Last, writing in The Bulwark, offers some advice to President Biden: Just do the popular stuff. This isn’t rocket science.
Democrats have a pretty substantial opportunity right now because there are large chunks of their agenda that are broadly popular. Biden will succeed or fail as a president in large part because of his willingness to prioritize the broadly popular parts of the Democratic agenda and back-burner the issues that appeal more narrowly to Democrats.
What should that look like? Well, here are some numbers:
- 79 percent of voters favor another round of COVID stimulus.
- Between 60 percent and 70 percent favor a robust democracy reform package. (The number depends on which elements you include.)
- Close to 70 percent are in favor of a public option.
Boom. That should be Biden’s phase one legislative agenda, right there.
There are other issues, which are deeply important to Democrats but either do not have broad appeal outside their caucus or have broad appeal only in specifically limited circumstances.
For instance, infrastructure spending is popular—but only when accompanied by tax hikes on the rich, which gets into dangerous territory.
And there are some elements of climate-change legislation that have broad support—planting trees, giving tax credits to businesses that control emissions, restricting power plant emissions. But there are elements that are deeply unpopular, such as a gas tax and encouraging the use of nuclear power.
Putting aside the merits—there are strong arguments for both the gas tax and nuclear power—it will be important for the Biden administration to be hard-headed about the opportunity costs.
Or, to put it another way:
The administration has a 12-month window to pass legislation and any item they take up—even a policy with 60 percent public support—will require a brutal fight with congressional Republicans and a disciplined, rigorous approach to rallying public opinion.
They should not spend a single minute of this precious time fighting on any ground that isn’t immensely favorable to them from the start.
Here is the ugly truth about Joe Biden’s first term:
His absolute top, overriding goal must be keeping Republicans out of power in 2024. The GOP is now a quasi-authoritarian party, which has demonstrated that it is not only willing, but eager, to overturn American democracy.
Everything Biden does should be in service to this one, overarching goal.
And that means being relentlessly focused on popularity and opportunity costs. It simply isn’t enough to say, “Well, Policy X may not be popular with everyone, but it’s a big priority for Democrats and we won, so we ought to see if we can bring the public around.”
Too much is at stake for that kind of sentimentality.
Stick to the popular stuff. Relentlessly make the case for these policies to the public.
Oh, and one more thing: If Democrats decide that they are intent on killing the filibuster, don’t do it in the abstract. Find the most important and broadly popular issue available, turn it into a piece of legislation, and then nuke it from orbit after Republicans obstruct from the wrong side of public opinion.
Voters care about policies, not process.
And popularity matters.