At the time, Biden’s top priority was signing into law a bill which addressed the ongoing economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Polling repeatedly showed that the bill moving through the House met Biden’s standard; no doubt in large part thanks to its inclusion of large stimulus checks, the legislation had strong public support. It passed the House and Senate on party-line votes, and Biden signed it into law.
With that out of the way, his effort to present policies which meet his own standards for unity get a bit trickier.
The White House is focused on a large infrastructure package which would partially offset a big spending push with an increase in federal taxes. Biden promised such increases on the campaign trail, reminding voters that his administration would focus on corporations and wealthy Americans. But as proposals to do just that move closer to reality, it’s not clear that they’ll get a thumbs-up from the public.
When Biden took office, Yahoo News conducted a poll with YouGov which asked about support for various Biden proposals, including rescinding the tax cuts President Donald Trump signed into law in late 2017. Most Democrats supported both increasing corporate taxes and taxes on those earning more than $400,000 a year. But overall, only half of respondents supported increased taxes on the wealthy and only a plurality supported increasing corporate taxes.
(In another Yahoo-YouGov poll from February 2020, nearly half of respondents described taxing wealth as socialist.)
Those numbers mirror polling from early in the Democratic primary, when Americans were asked about Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) proposal to increase taxes on millionaires and billionaires. Even that proposal, narrowly tailored to the super rich, barely earned majority support.
Large chunks of the country don’t have opinions on these subjects, providing some space for Biden — or for opponents of any proposal. On that latter question, though, we see an important distinction: While half the country supported raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, only 3 in 10 did so strongly. That’s a lot of space for movement on both sides.
Of course, what will be measured is not a specific part of a bill but, instead, an overall package. If Biden and the Democrats couple these increases with initiatives that expand infrastructure in popular ways, the package on the whole may meet Biden’s standard for what Americans want to see happen. The devil is in the details, as they say, and the details are generally a function of compromise. But shouting “tax increase” has historically been an easy way to sink a proposal.
After last week’s mass shooting at a grocery store in Colorado, Biden also elevated gun control as an issue. Here, the polling is notoriously complicated.
In August 2019, HuffPost partnered with YouGov to explore the popularity of various gun-control measures. Overall, a majority of Americans favored stricter gun laws, though only among Democrats did a majority hold that opinion.
On specific policies aimed in that direction, though, views were more positive. Across the board, party groups favored universal background checks and mandatory gun licenses (though not always strongly). Only among Democrats did a majority support an assault weapons ban.
Again, though, the issue is complicated at the granular level. Favorable views of voluntary buybacks of assault rifles was lower than support for a ban on the weapons. Views of mandatory buybacks was lower still.
One of the better lenses through which to consider the complexity here is that background check data. The broad support such proposals receive is often touted as an obvious reason to implement the policy. After the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. in late 2012, the Senate nearly passed legislation to that effect, with a majority supporting the idea — but unable to overcome a filibuster.
In 2014, a background-check bill went on the ballot in Washington state. The state, which had supported Barack Obama’s reelection bid by 14 points two years prior, supported the measure by an 18-point margin. Even there, though, the margin was less than the 90-plus percent support often cited by proponents of background checks.
In 2016, Maine put a similar measure on the ballot. The state supported Hillary Clinton for president that year by a three-point margin — but rejected the background-check measure by about four points. In other words, it was less popular than Clinton, who herself was outperformed by Biden four years later by six points. Only 48 percent of Mainers backed the idea, despite it having broad national support and despite polls earlier in the year showing the measure with two-thirds support.
It’s obviously more important for Biden to get legislation passed and signed into law than it is for him to fulfill his stated aim of unity. But it’s also the case that having broad public support, as the pandemic bill did, made it easier to pass the legislation in the first place. His goal of unity was rhetorical but also politically useful, and from here on out, it’s probably going to be harder to obtain.