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If Joe Biden built a road in a quiet forest, would anyone know about it?
That’s the philosophical problem for a President who should be having one of the best days of his presidency but is instead struggling to convince Americans he’s accomplished anything.
Biden delivered on a promise to get a massive infrastructure bill passed into law – one that had evaded previous presidents. He did it, against all expectations, in a bipartisan way. The signing ceremony attended by members of both parties Monday at the White House should have been a victory lap.
Instead, there are foreboding headlines for Biden and the Democrats.
New polls suggest Americans don’t understand his accomplishment and blame him for the state of the economy they’re worried about.
His approval rating, never extremely strong for a new President, is not too far from Donald Trump territory.
Palace intrigue. CNN’s Edward Isaac-Dovere and Jasmine Wright reported this weekend about mutual frustration between the White House and the office of Vice President Kamala Harris.
I’ll just share the first paragraph of the story, which is backed up with exhaustive reporting:
Worn out by what they see as entrenched dysfunction and lack of focus, key West Wing aides have largely thrown up their hands at Vice President Kamala Harris and her staff – deciding there simply isn’t time to deal with them right now, especially at a moment when President Joe Biden faces quickly multiplying legislative and political concerns.
These are not the types of stories that trickle out when things are going according to plan.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki jumped to Harris’ defense via Twitter on Sunday night.
“For anyone who needs to hear it. @VP is not only a vital partner to @POTUS but a bold leader who has taken on key, important challenges facing the country—from voting rights to addressing root causes of migration to expanding broadband,” tweeted Psaki.
Americans don’t get it yet. The Washington Post headline for a new Post-ABC News poll was grim: “Biden approval hits new low as economic discontent rises.” I asked CNN’s director of polling and election research, Jennifer Agiesta, how we should be viewing these polls.
What kind of a drop is this? “There certainly hasn’t been much good news for Biden in any of the recent polling – his numbers are not in great shape – but the way that polls are sometimes reported may make it sound a little worse than it actually is,” said Agiesta.
“While Biden has reached new lows recently in several polls, the previous comparison points for some of those polls were a while ago. So while his numbers have certainly dropped since the summer and around Labor Day, it is unclear if they are currently still declining or if they have plateaued.”
Not only do Americans question Biden’s accomplishments, there is also concern about his priorities. Agiesta pointed to a CNN poll conducted by SSRS in early November, when 58% said the President has not paid enough attention to the most important problems.
Bottom line. “Biden’s approval rating numbers are consistently landing at low points across several major polls, but it is unclear if they are currently still declining or if they have plateaued,” said Agiesta.
And it’s impossible to know if his approval has hit its floor.
It’s the economy, as usual. The problems for Biden in the poll are centered on perception and the economy. Inflation is expected to persist for months.
So long as Americans are preoccupied with the economy, it could be extremely difficult for Biden to convince them his spending package is helping them.
According to the Post-ABC poll:
- Seventy percent of Americans have a negative view of the economy.
- Nearly half the country – 48% – blames Biden for inflation.
- More than 6 in 10 Americans, including 71% of independents, say he hasn’t accomplished much.
How does Biden’s approval compare? Biden doesn’t have the lowest approval rating of any recent president at this point in his first term. That dubious honor goes to Trump, according to Gallup. But Biden (42% approval in October) is not far above Trump (37% approval at this point in his presidency).
Why infrastructure is a hard sell. If you’ve read the text of the infrastructure legislation and wondered why there aren’t more specifics about what exactly it will do, that’s because the package, by design, didn’t include specific projects.
States, perhaps dusting off much-needed projects for which they had no funding, will apply for their cut of the $550 billion in new spending. CNN’s Katie Lobosco looks at four potential infrastructure efforts:
- Brent Spence Bridge. It’s a vital Midwest artery but is clogged. The legislation could place a second bridge alongside the first and get traffic and trucks moving more quickly over the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Kentucky.
- Expanding Atlanta public transit. Dedicated bus lines outside Atlanta have been studied and endorsed. The new law could free up the $1 billion needed to make them a reality.
- Improving Chicago’s rail hub. A quarter of the nation’s freight rail traffic moves through Chicago, but the hub’s lines have been described as a “spaghetti bowl.” Federal money could help untangle things.
- Upgrading the Port of Baltimore. Officials want to raise their hands for some of the $17 billion the law earmarks for ports. One project they envision will upgrade electric supply feeders and facilitate new electric vehicles, including container cranes.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the top elected Republican in the country, was not at the White House signing ceremony, but he has bragged about the funding back in his home state of Kentucky, where he said it was a “godsend.”
It will also be hard for Democrats to focus on selling this infrastructure package since they’re still arguing over an even larger social spending bill that would have an immediate effect on Americans’ lives by ensuring schooling for US kids starting at the age of 3 rather than 5.
If Democrats can get that over the finish line, they’ll have even more to brag about. But they’ll still need to pierce the frustration voters feel at inflation.
How taxpayer dollars helped Tesla. Here’s one example of where tax dollars go as they trickle out into the economy.
CNN’s Chris Isidore points out that Tesla, one of the most valuable companies in the world, has benefited from billions in tax incentives.
It could get billions more if the social spending bill passes into law and the government starts issuing electric vehicle buyers new $7,500-per-vehicle tax credits.
A worthwhile trade. If you value having electric vehicles over gas-burning vehicles – and anyone who is worried about climate change should – tax incentives to companies like Tesla are probably worthwhile.
However, it is extremely frustrating to see Elon Musk troll Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on Twitter over taxes, since Musk has received taxpayer help.
“Want me to sell more stock, Bernie? Just say the word … ,” Musk tweeted Sunday as part of his troll.
Here are Isidore’s calculations (and please read his story to understand more about each of these items):
- Tesla has received $5 billion to date from the sales of emissions credits.
- SpaceX has received $10 billion to date in NASA contracts.
- Tesla was able to charge $1.7 billion in higher car prices thanks to tax credits for car buyers.
Add to that low-interest loans from the Department of Energy, which Tesla – now worth more than $1 trillion thanks to investors’ faith rather than sales – has since paid back.
What to watch: “Being … Chris Christie.” Both political parties are having messaging problems. For Democrats, it’s how to sell Biden’s agenda. For Republicans, it’s how to deal with the legacy of Trump.
CNN’s Dana Bash has a new interview show, and Monday night’s episode, which airs at 10 p.m. ET, features Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor and Trump ally who is now critical of the former President’s role instigating the Capitol insurrection. Christie is also telling the story of his nearly fatal case of Covid-19.