Voters Don't Often Reward What They Like...But They Do Punish What They Don't Like
Joe Biden finally signed the infrastructure bill into law this past Monday after a three-month delay separating its approval by the Senate from its passage in the House of Representatives—a delay insisted upon by House liberals who attempted to use it as leverage to guarantee the simultaneous enactment of the larger and more ambitious reconciliation bill. But the reconciliation bill, named the Build Back Better Act after a campaign slogan of Biden's, still remains in legislative limbo, as a few pivotal moderates in the Senate have remained coy about exactly what they will support and when they will support it. The House leadership plans to move forward on the bill as early as this week, but the Senate's timeline for action will remain unclear until the entire Democratic caucus signals that it's ready to proceed. At the moment, final passage of the bill shortly before the Christmas recess seems like the most optimistic plausible scenario for Democrats, and it's still possible that nothing will end up passing at all.
It might seem logical to draw a connection between the slowing momentum of the Biden legislative agenda and the simultaneous fade in the president's job approval ratings over the course of the late summer and fall. Perhaps, one could imagine, voters who are dissatisfied by the pace of national policy change are taking out their frustrations on the president. If this were true, both the recent enactment of the infrastructure bill and the potential forthcoming passage of Build Back Better—both popular measures according to opinion surveys—would hold the promise of giving Biden and his fellow Democrats a popularity boost heading into the midterm elections next year.
One problem with this assumption is that there are other, more convincing explanations for Biden's declining approval. The resurgence of COVID-19 infections caused by the delta variant, combined with the continued disruption of the job market and rising inflation, seems quite sufficient to account for increased public discontent since the spring. Even Biden's imposition of mandates for vaccination or frequent COVID testing as a condition of employment, though favored by a narrow majority of Americans, may have cost him some support among certain segments of the population.
But we also don't have many historical examples of voters rewarding presidents and governing parties for legislative productivity. Even when the bills being passed are popular or transformative, they don't seem to attract new supporters to the president's side or protect him from criticism on other grounds. The congressional sessions of 1965–66, 1981–82, and 2009–10 were all marked by unusually prolific policy-making innovation, enacting laws that continue even today to shape national politics and federal governance. In all three cases, the president's party suffered a significant loss of congressional seats in the subsequent midterm election.
Voters are tough to satisfy and have short memories, especially for success. (In May 1945, Winston Churchill and the other Allied leaders declared victory in the European theater of World War II; two months later, Churchill's party lost 189 seats and control of Parliament to the opposition.) Americans happily accepted the economic stimulus payments included in the American Rescue Plan earlier this year, passed through Congress on a party-line vote, but did not respond to this provision of benefits by showering the ruling Democrats with their enduring affection. But when the party in power does something unpopular, or even fails to effectively ameliorate the day's crisis or economic hardship, we can almost always foresee a public backlash. In politics, grievance is a far more predictable response than gratitude.
Anyone who would wish electoral outcomes to serve as a reliable means of rewarding legislative achievement and punishing legislative inertia will find this pattern endlessly infuriating. But it's a good reason why the importance of new policy shouldn't be judged only through the lens of its potential short-term electoral consequences, which may be nonexistent or even negative. Democrats paid a heavy political cost for passing the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which contributed to their loss of the House for what turned out to be the following 8 years. But when Republicans sought to capitalize on public dissatisfaction with the ACA by attempting to repeal it in the first year of the Trump presidency, the direction of popular sentiment immediately swung in the other direction—and House Democrats soon found themselves back in the majority. A party expecting an electoral reward for enacting new laws may just need a lot of patience; the political payoff, if it comes at all, may not be realized until the opposition comes to power and tries to undo the accomplishments of its predecessors.