WASHINGTON — Americans perceive Joe Biden as more moderate than Barack Obama at the same stage of his presidency, a new survey shows, even as progressive activists say the incumbent is governing to the left of the former president.
The perception of Biden as a moderate may be helping him win support from congressional Democrats in competitive parts of the country who might otherwise feel pressure to oppose his agenda.
In April 2009, the NBC poll found that 59 percent of registered voters saw Obama as "very" or "somewhat" liberal, while 30 percent saw him as moderate. A new NBC poll released Sunday finds that 44 percent see Biden as "very" or "somewhat" liberal, while 42 percent see him as "moderate."
It was a problem for Obama, resulting in defections from centrist Democrats and calls to scale back his agenda.
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But Biden — a politician known for his institutionalism who campaigned as a moderate unifier — has continued to maintain that perception among large swaths of the public, even as Republicans depict him as bowing to his party's left wing.
Biden signature 100-day achievement, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package, was considerably larger than the $787 billion recovery aid enacted by Obama in the early days of his administration. Biden lost just one House Democratic vote on his Covid-19 relief bill, and none in the Senate.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a moderate Democrat, has been critical of her party's left flank. But she has praise for Biden, saying he has done a "very good job" of communicating his ideas and "telling the truth" to the public. She said he has brought in a qualified team and set reasonable expectations for voters.
"I think he's demonstrated genuine leadership, which is what you want to see from a president, whether you agree with them all the time or disagree with them," Spanberger said in a recent interview in her competitive central Virginia district. "And I think he's been earnest. And so, for that reason I would give him very, very high marks in what he's brought to the country."
The willingness of moderate Democrats to continue embracing Biden's aggressive economic agenda will be critical to passing his $2.25 trillion infrastructure and jobs package, and an upcoming family safety-net program expected to total more than $1 trillion.
Overall, Obama enjoyed higher national ratings than Biden has in the first few months of his presidency: Fifty-four percent said in an April 2009 NBC poll that he was off to a "great" or "good" start, compared to 44 percent who say the same of Biden now.
But Republicans were more successful at defining Obama as a liberal than they have been with Biden.
A Pew Research Center poll in April 2009 found that Americans believed by a 40 percent to 33 percent margin that Obama was listening more to liberals than to moderates in his party.
At times, the perception befuddled Obama. In 2012, he told a TV station in Miami that his policies would have made him a "moderate Republican" in the 1980s.
Republicans continue to try to whittle away at the perception of Biden as a moderate.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., kept up his criticism of Biden on Monday, blasting his "so-called infrastructure plan" as "a sloppy liberal wish list." He questioned whether Biden wants to build roads and bridges or sees infrastructure as "wrapping paper for unrelated gifts to the far-left."
Biden may also benefit from a congressional Democratic caucus that has become more liberal since 2009. Obama's larger majorities hinged on rural and Southern Democrats, who were willing to be more vocally critical and who at times voted against the party. Biden's slim majorities depend on moderates like Spanberger who represent well-educated suburban districts that are more accepting of liberal values.
Americans are also more open to activist government today: The NBC poll found that in April 2009, 47 percent said government should do more, while 46 percent said it's doing too many things. Now, 55 percent say government should do more, while 41 percent say government is doing too many things.
Overall, the country's self-identification has not changed dramatically since 2009, the NBC poll found.
In April 2009, 24 percent of Americans considered themselves "very" or "somewhat" liberal, compared to 26 percent who say the same today. In April 2009, 35 percent considered themselves moderate, compared to 38 percent who say the same today. And in April 2009, 35 percent considered themselves conservative, compared to 33 percent who say the same today.