While Biden worries about the left, the voters he needs are in the center

Polls show President Biden’s principal weakness is with the middle of the electorate.
Polls show President Biden’s principal weakness is with the middle of the electorate.

Summary

The president, some centrists argue, isn’t doing enough to appeal to the moderate and independent voters that tend to decide elections.

WASHINGTON—President Biden’s announcement last week that his administration would seek to forgive billions of dollars’ worth of federal student loans was cheered by progressives, the latest in a string of actions he has taken to shore up support from the left—annoying the center in the process.

That has some Democrats worrying he is making a big mistake. Despite much recent hand-wringing about the unpopular president’s need to shore up his base with liberal appeals, polls show Biden’s principal weakness isn’t with the left but with the middle of the electorate. The president, some centrists argue, isn’t doing enough to appeal to the moderate and independent voters that tend to decide elections.

“The voters that elected Biden in the first place are the center-left voters that liked his centrist policies, not the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren slice of the electorate," said Lauren Harper Pope, who co-founded a group called WelcomePAC that urges Democrats to make pragmatic, big-tent appeals. “Yet the administration seems to have a fear of talking about things people actually care about if it might offend a small group of ideological activists."

In a recent Wall Street Journal poll that found Biden narrowly trailing former President Donald Trump in the top battleground states, the two candidates drew roughly equal shares of their respective parties when polled head-to-head: Biden won 88% of Democrats, while Trump won 90% of Republicans. With independent voters, Trump led by six points, 36% to 30%. Similarly, a new New York Times/Siena national poll shows a tight race overall—Trump 46%, Biden 45%—with Trump leading among independent voters by 5 points.

The Democratic strategy group Blueprint found in a recent national poll that 52% of voters are concerned that Biden is too liberal, including 61% of independents. Blueprint also analyzed a spate of recent polling to determine which 2020 Biden voters have switched to say they will vote for Trump this year. Among that group, 53% call themselves moderates and 33% identify as conservative; just 14% consider themselves liberals.

It is a misconception, Pope says, that left-wing appeals are the key to mobilizing the young and minority voters that have cooled on Biden. In fact, Black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters tend to be more moderate than other Democrats. The Blueprint analysis found that 38% of voters who have switched to Trump since 2020 are age 18-34, while just 13% are 65 or older.

What moderates want to hear

The Biden campaign disputed this analysis, pointing to his continuing disagreements with the left and noting that he wins moderate voters in many polls. (Self-described moderates are a disproportionately Democratic group.) “President Biden has assembled a broad, diverse coalition because he has reached across the aisle to deliver historic legislation on infrastructure, drug pricing, manufacturing and gun reform," campaign spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said in a statement. “Donald Trump, on the other hand, has severely alienated moderates with extreme positions like endorsing abortion bans and lying about election results, so much so that tens of thousands of registered Republicans continue to vote for Nikki Haley in critical battlegrounds, weeks after she dropped out."

Indeed, Trump’s extreme rhetoric ought to provide Biden an opening to seize the center. The Biden campaign issued a statement welcoming Haley’s voters after she dropped out and has aired a 30-second digital ad aimed at them, while Trump has done no such outreach and continues to show weakness among key demographics such as suburbanites and women. Yet some centrists worry that Biden has failed to voice the sort of popular, mainstream positions that would attract these voters on top-of-mind issues such as energy, immigration, the economy and public safety.

Blueprint’s chief pollster, Evan Roth Smith, said many of Biden’s policies poll well in isolation, yet he gets low marks from voters for how he is handling those same issues, likely because of the way the White House and its allies tend to talk about them. “The thing voters want is basically what the president is actually doing," he said. “But when you ask what they think is going on, they don’t see the White House for what it’s actually doing."

One case in point is energy policy. Under Biden, American energy production has reached historic highs—a popular accomplishment that voters overwhelmingly support. But you would never know it from listening to him. The achievement went unmentioned in the president’s recent State of the Union address and his recent campaign speeches, where he has preferred to talk about climate investments and “environmental justice." Perhaps as a result, most Americans disapprove of his handling of energy, and many blame him for high gas prices.

The president’s failure to tout this aspect of his record has frustrated moderate allies. Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) recently wrote a Washington Post op-ed sarcastically “congratulating" Biden for his energy record and urging him to tout it more vigorously. “This is the all-of-the-above strategy in action, showing results. But it seems some of the president’s radical advisers in the White House are so worried about angering climate activists that they refuse to speak up about these accomplishments," Manchin wrote.

A muddled border message

Immigration is another issue where Biden has taken tougher stances than voters give him credit for—and shied away from rhetoric that might win over moderates. The administration helped negotiate the bipartisan Senate deal to bolster border security that failed to pass earlier this year. The deal was a political winner: A February Wall Street Journal poll found that 59% of voters supported it, including roughly equal shares of Democrats and Republicans.

Yet in the absence of congressional action, many voters would like to see the president take matters into his own hands rather than simply blaming Republicans for the deal’s failure. The Journal poll found more voters agreed with the idea that “President Biden reversed Trump’s executive orders on the border which opened our borders, and he failed to use the power he has had all along to seal the border and clamp down on illegal immigration" than the idea that Republicans were to blame for killing the border deal.

In the wake of the deal’s failure, the White House has considered using executive action to address the issue. Such an announcement during the State of the Union would have been popular, Blueprint’s polling found. But Biden hasn’t yet moved forward with any orders, as he faces both progressive pushback and concerns from lawyers that he would be blocked in court.

In the State of the Union, Biden ad-libbed a condemnation of the “illegal" who is accused of killing Georgia nursing student Laken Riley; the next day, he expressed regret for using what some liberals consider a dehumanizing term. His campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, recently told the Washington Post that Biden was “not advocating for shutting down the border."

Rep. Tom Suozzi (D., N.Y.), who won a hotly contested special election in February that largely revolved around the border issue, said his approach was proof that Democrats have to forcefully address issues where voters perceive them as weak. “My strategy has always been to try to address the concerns people have," he said. “People said, ‘That’s not a Democratic issue.’ It is an American issue, and ignoring it is not going to work. I am encouraging my colleagues to keep on banging this drum."

Biden, Suozzi said, needs to remind voters of his moderate positions and bipartisan accomplishments. “Everybody always says you’ve got to get the base out, but what we’ve lost track of is the fact that so many people are more moderate that are voting for Democrats," he said. “A lot of what the president has done is to the middle," such as legislation on semiconductors, infrastructure and veterans, “and his 2020 campaign was to the middle. He is genuinely a more middle of the road person. He just needs to manifest that more now."

Some strategists on the left disagree with the idea that Biden should tack to the center. “It is a really damaging and verifiably false assumption that the way that you get folks that are conflicted is essentially running as a Republican lite," said Anat Shenker-Osorio, a communications consultant and senior adviser to the Research Collaborative, a progressive strategy consortium. The choice between turning out the base and persuading the center is a false one, she argued, because energized base voters are the best messengers for campaigns looking to build a broad coalition.

The voters currently “toggling" between the candidates, Shenker-Osorio said, are largely young and disenchanted. Were Biden to take more conservative positions, it would only muddy the waters with these voters, who are already struggling to comprehend the election’s stakes. Republicans “are either an existential threat to all that we value, or they have some good ideas and we’re going to try to work with them," she said. “If you try to say both of those things, one of those things is transparently BS."

The risks of turning against Israel

The Israel-Gaza war is another area where some worry Biden will end up paying too much heed to the progressive side, even as Iran’s drone and missile strikes against Israel over the weekend heightened the political uncertainty surrounding the conflict. The U.S. and its allies helped fend off the attacks, and Biden has said repeatedly that his support for Israel’s security is ironclad. But Biden has also been criticized by Republicans for urging Israel to be restrained in its response.

As casualties in Gaza have burgeoned, he and other Democrats have steadily increased their criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war and of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. The president has had to scale back rallies and public appearances due to the ubiquity of anti-Israel protesters, who call him “Genocide Joe" and smear red paint on the White House gates. Biden’s campaign has repeatedly sent emissaries to placate inflamed Arab-American voters, and some left-wing members of Congress held up “Stop Sending Bombs" signs during the State of the Union. Progressives have called for conditions on U.S. aid and suspension of arms sales to the Jewish state, steps Biden has so far refused to take.

There is no question that American public opinion has trended steadily negative toward Israel and its conduct in the brutal conflict. Yet there is little evidence Biden’s support for Israel has eroded his electoral prospects. A well-funded, high-profile campaign to get Democratic voters to mark “uncommitted" on their primary ballots in Michigan’s February primary netted just 13% of the vote, barely more than the 11% who voted “uncommitted" when President Obama was up for re-election in 2012. The 104,000 voters who picked that option was smaller than the 154,000-vote margin by which Biden won the state in 2020.

In the February WSJ national poll, 60% of voters disapproved of Biden’s handling of the Gaza conflict, an 8-point increase from December. Other polls have found voters trust Trump more than Biden to handle the conflict. Trump hasn’t laid out a clear plan for how he would approach the issue, publicly urging Israel to get the war over with or risk damaging its international standing. His administration was known for strongly favoring Israel and disregarding Palestinian prerogatives.

Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and president of Democratic Majority for Israel, said Biden’s poor marks on the issue aren’t a result of widespread opposition to his support for the Jewish state. “People assume that being upset about the conflict means being upset about supporting Israel, but that’s not true," he said. Biden should keep in mind, Mellman said, that most Americans still support Israel overall. “When you create distance, there is a risk on the other side—a risk of losing the pro-Israel community, which is significantly larger than the anti-Israel group."

Many center-left operatives point out that the number of voters casting protest votes against Biden has been significantly smaller than the number coming out to make a statement against Trump, including tens of thousands who have voted for Haley in primaries even after she dropped out of the race.

It is those voters that Biden most needs to reach to turn around his electoral prospects—pragmatic suburban moderates skeptical of far-left policies. “The swing voters I represent are resilient people, but they want to see that the government is going to make their hard times less hard," said Rep. Susie Lee, a Democrat who represents a swing district in Nevada and a leader of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. “Biden has demonstrated better than any president in my lifetime that he can work with both sides and actually get tough things done. The challenge is to make people understand that."

Write to Molly Ball at molly.ball@wsj.com

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