Members Only | November 22, 2021 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
Biden’s policies are more popular than he is. For the first time in the modern era, the link between president and agenda is broken
How the press distorts political reality.
President Joe Biden’s polling appears to be in a slump. His approval average is 43 percent, with 52 percent disapproving.
These numbers are perplexing, given a majority supports his legislative agenda. For example, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll recorded Biden’s approval at 41 percent, whereas support for the bipartisan infrastructure bill was 63 percent and Build Back Better was 58 percent. The same poll also found that the GOP midterm advantage is higher than it’s been since 1981. All despite the fact that Republican representatives largely oppose the agenda that voters support.
These polling trends are likely due to multiple causes.
As the Columbia Journalism Review observed, there’s been a demonstrable breakdown in media communication if 59 percent have heard about the cost of the Build Back Better bill and far fewer have heard of its popular provisions.
Typically, new presidents start with high approval ratings. Those ratings fall as voters shift to favoring the out-party in midterms. So part of Biden’s slump may just be typical political dynamics.
However, the decoupling of the president’s approval and his agenda is unprecedented in modern American politics. Both previous presidents — Barack Obama and Donald Trump — experienced approval ratings that slumped in tandem with opposition to their legislative agendas.
So what’s going on?
One cause may be the economy.
Current inflation may be temporary, but it is causing real stress for many Americans and voters will typically assign responsibility to the party in power. Additionally, Democrats could improve messaging, such that it may be true that Biden could have done a better job attaching his own face to his agenda by doing more public appearances. Finally, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema likely did Democrats no favors by stalling popular legislation in Congress.
Another player driving this odd mismatch: the media.
Blaming the media can seem like an easy scapegoat. However, given the current set of circumstances, there are good reasons to question whether the press corps — those who are meant to convey information about legislation to the public — are doing a good job.
First, we have to understand the media environment, including our own role as news consumers. The press should not be presidential cheerleaders. Its job is to critically relay facts and analyses. That said, the media and media consumers are subject to a level of negativity bias that can drive public perception in irrational directions.
In concrete terms, this asymmetrical coverage entails that Democrats are punished for legislating, the popularity of their agenda gets relegated to the shadows, and, worse, Republicans’ own opposition is rarely conveyed to voters.
Humans are more likely to engage with negative information. In terms of Biden’s agenda, this means reporting has focused on more negative, rather than more positive, news. In one recent interview, for example, after the House of Representatives passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill, a journalist asked Biden if his next bill, Build Back Better, was “doomed” due to the lack of Republican support.
The reporter did not mention, in the exchange, that the public overwhelmingly approves of the legislation. Reporters don’t need to say, “Build Back Better is awesome,” but their reporting would, in fact be more neutral if they added objective facts, such as the bill’s popularity, rather than focusing on gloom in the legislative process.
Crucially, social science research has shown that disproportionate negative coverage actually shapes human perception in a way that does not match the political reality. This has real consequences for voters’ decision-making in a democratic society.
That the media has some role to play in Americans’ perception of Biden’s legislation is supported by evidence. Multiple polls have indicated Americans’ have only a sparse understanding of the Build Back Better bill. When the bill still stood at $3.5 trillion dollars, one October poll from CBS News indicated that Americans had heard most about the price tag (59 percent) and tax increases (58 percent).
In contrast, only 46 percent had heard about universal pre-K and only 40 percent had heard about Medicare Coverage for dental, vision and hearing, as well as lower Medicare drug prices. In the same poll, respondents expressed whopping support for federally funding these same provisions. Sixty-seven percent supported universal pre-K, 84 percent supported expanded Medicare coverage and 88 percent supported lowering prescription drug prices.
There appears to be a disconnect between voters’ perceptions of the president and his agenda. Is this entirely the media’s fault? Of course not. But it’s difficult to ignore the connections between reporting and public awareness.
So there appears to be a disconnect between voters’ perceptions of the president and his agenda. Is this entirely the media’s fault? Of course not. But it’s difficult to ignore the connections between reporting and public awareness. As the Columbia Journalism Review observed, there’s been a demonstrable breakdown in media communication if 59 percent have heard about the cost of the Build Back Better bill and far fewer have heard of its popular provisions.
In addition to negativity bias and lack of coverage on legislative content, there’s another problem: the erasure of Republican agency.
Democrats are attempting to actually govern. Such attempts will always involve negotiations between various political actors and interests. Yet these negotiations are hammered away as being signs of “Democrats in disarray.” Meanwhile, there has been very little said about Democrats being frequently reliant on two obstinate senators precisely because they cannot rely on any Republican support. Republicans refuse to take on the messy process of engaging in democracy and then manage to slip past the media’s negativity-biased radar, all while Democrats are portrayed as feckless and chaotic.
In concrete terms, this asymmetrical coverage creates conditions in which Democrats are punished for legislating, the popularity of their agenda gets relegated to the shadows, and, worse, Republicans’ own opposition is rarely conveyed to voters. One striking example of this can be seen in a recent ABC News report featuring disappointed Biden voters. One such voter, an 82-year-old Pennsylvanian, said economic stress was stretching his social security thin and, given these circumstances, he was intending to vote Republican in the midterms.
This voter’s pain is real and he deserves to be heard, but other things are true as well: Build Back Better would cap his drug expenses, provide elder care and expand Medicare. It’s also true that Republicans are fighting against these same provisions and have a well-known antipathy towards expanding Social Security, which was the issue most affecting the featured voter. None of this is mentioned in the article.
Consider, for just one moment, how voters’ perception of the political reality would shift if clearer, more balanced frames were provided when discussing the current political debates.
Consider, for just one moment, how voters’ perception of the political reality would shift if clearer, more balanced frames were provided when discussing the current political debates. For example, imagine the following headlines, all of which include concrete details of Democrats’ agendas, as well as Republican opposition:
“Majority of Republicans oppose Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure agenda, which is supported by 63% of Americans.”
“Majority of Republicans oppose Biden’s plan to fix bridges, replace lead pipes and bring broadband to rural communities.”
“House Republicans oppose childcare subsidies, expansion of the childcare tax credit and universal pre-k.”
“House Republicans voted against Medicare for dental care, capping insulin costs and putting a limit on seniors’ out-of-pocket drug spending.”
Changing journalistic frames does not require advocating for Democrats or bashing Republicans. Reducing disproportionate negative coverage and highlighting Republican agency would actually give voters a more objective sense of political reality. Democrats want to fix bridges, provide childcare and lower drug costs. Republicans don’t. These are political facts and voters should be aware of them.
Biden’s sinking approval ratings are, again, likely determined by multiple factors. That said, the decoupling between Biden’s personal approval and support for his agenda is a real cause for concern.
The media is not responsible for improving Biden’s polling, but it should be aware of the role it has to play in educating citizens.
Relentless negativity, paired with the omission of objectively positive facts, doesn’t neutrally describe reality; it non-neutrally distorts perception. If this media environment persists, citizens will go to vote based on fogs and shadows, rather than actual legislative content.
This will have real consequences not just for their own personal lives, but for our democracy itself. The press will be partly culpable.
Magdi Semrau writes about the politics of language, science and medicine for the Editorial Board. She has researched child language development and published in the New York Academy of Sciences. Born and raised in Alaska, she can be found @magi_jay.