In a blow to President Joe Biden, activists and American democracy, efforts to protect voting rights were defeated in the Senate on Wednesday by Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
The ability of a president to influence members of Congress is always limited. It seems like frequently members of the opposition party care little about what the president says or does. With regards to voting rights, this means that Biden has, rightly, written off the idea of getting any Republicans to vote to protect the rights of all Americans to vote. Most presidents can influence their own party, but even that kind of presidential power ebbs and flows.
Unfortunately, Biden decided to lean on the Senate during a period when his power was at a low ebb.
The essential challenge that Biden faces now is that nobody cares all that much about what a president who has a 43 percent approval rating says.
A new national NBC poll shows Biden's job approval rating at 43 percent, down from the mid-50s during much of the first half of 2021. A president whose approval is in the low 40s has little ability to influence senators of his own party. After all, unpopular presidents cannot mobilize opinion in a senator's state, make speeches that change people's views on a particular issue or otherwise use their political strength to pressure a senator. Biden still has some of the tools of governance, such as appointments, funding for projects and the like, that he can use, but he is nonetheless in a much weaker position now than he was six or nine months ago.
Last week it seemed as if it was only a matter of hours between the time Biden announced his commitment to abolishing the filibuster to pass significant voting rights legislation and when Sinema and Manchin indicated, or reiterated, their desire to keep the filibuster in place.
The filibuster is a Senate rule that requires 60 votes to bring any proposed legislation to a vote, but it would require only 50 votes and a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Kamala Harris to change it. Biden's opposition to the filibuster had no legal or governance weight behind it. It was simply one man, albeit a very powerful one, stating his opinion and trying to influence the views of Democratic senators.
Any conversation between Biden and Manchin or Sinema would have looked a lot different in spring of 2021 than today. Back then, Biden could plausibly say that he had the American people, including the voters in Arizona, and perhaps even West Virginia, behind him and that a growing consensus was emerging around voting rights. Moreover, as a popular president, Biden could have helped build that consensus by speaking about voting rights and democracy back when Americans were listening to him.
The good news for him is that his popularity does not have to be stuck in the low 40s.
The essential challenge that Biden faces now is that nobody cares all that much about what a president who has a 43 percent approval rating says. Most voters have made up their minds about both Biden and his agenda, and other than that 43 percent, which represents the Democratic base, few support his agenda.
None of this is new or unique to Biden. We also saw this when Donald Trump's poll numbers were as bad or worse than Biden's are now. Many Americans simply stopped listening to Trump regarding, for example, Covid-19. By spring 2020, Trump's regular news conferences about the pandemic became more disturbing, and it led to many in the U.S. to distrust and ignore his guidance.
All presidents are in a race that pits their popularity against their legislative agenda. Once the former wanes, the latter becomes much more difficult. It's why most major legislation is passed early in a president's term, usually in the first year. This was true of Biden who signed the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill and the $1 trillion infrastructure bill last year. And yes, Biden did manage to pass the latter bill despite poor poll numbers, but it was also a much more popular bill with more bipartisan support than the proposed voting rights legislation.
What is most appalling about the problem facing the president is that he has created it for himself. Republican state legislatures have been passing restrictive voting laws since early in Biden's term — more accurately since before he took office. The need for the Democrats to take actions to protect equal access to the franchise did not evolve in the last few months but was an issue that activists have been bringing to Biden's attention for many months. However, despite his decades in the Senate and eight years as vice president, Biden did not seem to understand, or act on, this basic rule of presidential power. Doing so badly flubbed the Democrats' chances of passing voting rights.
The good news for him is that his popularity does not have to be stuck in the low 40s. If the omicron variant fades away (as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has predicted), inflation begins to go down or the administration can successfully remind people in the U.S. of how they have benefited from Covid relief and how they will benefit from various infrastructure investments, Biden's popularity will improve.
However, it is still unlikely that Biden will ever be as popular as he was in the first months of his presidency when vaccinations were proceeding faster than promised, and the memory of the Trump years was still fresh in voters' minds.
Biden's efforts to reform the Senate, abolish the filibuster and pass voting rights legislation are unlikely to pass and will be yet another lost opportunity. Waiting to pass key legislation until after your popularity is under water is a rookie presidential mistake. Unfortunately for American democracy, this mistake was made by a president who has been a Washington insider for half a century and should have known better.