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New Jersey. Arizona. California. Michigan. While the rest of us were enjoying roast beast and champagne during the last couple weeks of December, members of independent and bipartisan redistricting commissions in those states were completing the work of drawing new congressional lines. In fact, by Tuesday of this week (when New York’s advisory redistricting commission is due to send the legislature its final proposed congressional map), all but one1 of the congressional redistricting commissions in the country will be done with their work.
Good-government advocates have long advocated for commissions to take over the job of redistricting from state legislatures, arguing that the commissions produce maps that serve the people over partisan interests. But now that we’ve seen their output, we can test this claim: Have redistricting commissions lived up to the hype this cycle? In general, it’s a mixed bag: Commissions have produced fairer maps than state legislatures, but not necessarily more competitive ones; they also failed to come to an agreement on more than one occasion.
According to two common measures of map fairness, congressional maps enacted by commissions (or courts that took over from failed commissions) have been less biased than those that have emerged from legislatures. For instance, out of the six commission states with at least three congressional districts, five have a median seat whose FiveThirtyEight partisan lean2 is within 3 percentage points of the state’s as a whole. (The exception is Colorado, where the median seat is 5 points redder than the state.)
It’s even more striking when you go by the maps’ efficiency gaps, which is a measure of which party has fewer “wasted” votes (i.e., votes that don’t contribute toward a candidate winning). All but one commission state with at least three congressional districts has an efficiency gap of 5 points or fewer, whereas the maps drawn by partisan actors are very partisan. (So far, every Democratic-controlled state with at least three districts has an efficiency gap of D+13 or greater, while all but one Republican-controlled state with at least three districts has an efficiency gap of R+7 or greater.)
||who Controls redistricting▲▼
The exception among commission states is New Jersey, whose map has a D+16 efficiency gap, indicating a strong pro-Democratic bias. But New Jersey’s commission is not exactly a model of nonpartisanship. Twelve of its 13 members are picked directly by state legislators or political parties (six by Democrats, six by Republicans), and after they failed to agree on a 13th member last summer, the New Jersey Supreme Court chose the Democrats’ preferred candidate. The commission eventually (and predictably) voted 7-6 for a map drawn by the commission’s Democrats.
However, partisan fairness is only one way of measuring a map’s quality. Another is how responsive the map is to shifting political winds (as measured by the number of competitive districts). And on that front, commissions’ performance was just so-so. Only 8 percent of commission-enacted districts in this redistricting cycle (nine out of 109) have partisan leans between D+5 and R+5, indicating they are highly competitive. That’s the same as the share of legislatively enacted districts that are highly competitive: 8 percent (12 out of 159). In fairness, though, the number of competitive congressional districts has been on the decline for decades, as polarization has gotten worse — a trend that commissions alone can’t reverse. In addition, commissions were able to create a larger number of somewhat competitive districts (partisan leans between D+15 and R+15). Thirty-three percent of commission-enacted districts (36 out of 109) were at least somewhat competitive by our definition, and this share was significantly more than the 21 percent of legislatively enacted districts (33 out of 159).
But as New Jersey’s commission demonstrated, one big lesson from the 2021-22 redistricting cycle has been that not all redistricting commissions are created equal. Broadly speaking, there are four kinds of commissions: independent, politician, bipartisan and advisory.3 And of these, independent redistricting commissions (those whose commissioners are not directly chosen by politicians) were the most successful this cycle. Insulated as much as possible from the pressures of partisanship, the nation’s four independent commissions (Arizona’s, California’s, Colorado’s and Michigan’s) not only drew some of the fairest maps of the cycle, but they also completed their work without too much drama. Only in Arizona did intra-commission tensions bubble to the surface, and only after the map had been drawn.
The same cannot be said of Connecticut, Ohio and Virginia, however. What do these states have in common? Politicians themselves are the commissioners, which arguably makes them the most partisan redistricting commissions in the country. Democrats and Republicans on the redistricting commissions of all three of these states failed to agree on a congressional map this cycle, kicking the process to the next entity in line (the state supreme courts in Connecticut and Virginia, the legislature in Ohio).4
What about commissions whose level of partisanship is somewhere between these two extremes — those whose commissioners are directly chosen by politicians but are not politicians themselves? Perhaps unsurprisingly, these bipartisan commissions had a bit of a mixed record.5 On one hand, the commissions in Idaho and Montana went perfectly smoothly. (That said, I’m not sure their success tells us much of anything. Idaho and Montana have only two congressional districts each, and it’s not too hard to draw a single line. Plus, they are both solidly red states that were very likely to elect two Republicans each to the House no matter how the lines were drawn. If the stakes had been higher in these states, I’m not sure their commissions would have been so uneventful.)
On the other hand, Washington’s bipartisan commission very nearly crashed and burned à la the politician commissions, although the state Supreme Court ultimately bailed them out. The commission initially seemed to approve maps that had not yet been shared with the public (a violation of open-meetings laws) just before its deadline. However, the next day, the commission announced that it had missed the deadline by a matter of minutes, sending the map-drawing process to the Washington Supreme Court. The court eventually ruled that the commission had “substantially complied” with its mandate and accepted the map that the commission had drawn. (The map is still subject to small revisions from the Washington legislature, but it is on track to become law by early February.) And finally, we’ve already been over what happened with New Jersey’s bipartisan commission: Although it finished by its deadline, the process was acrimonious and did not produce a fair map.
Finally, advisory redistricting commissions — those that submit maps to legislatures that are under no obligation to accept them — also had a hit-or-miss record. Legislatures in Iowa and Maine did end up passing the maps proposed by their respective advisory commissions. However, in Iowa, the map that was passed had a heavily Republican-leaning efficiency gap, and in Maine, a bipartisan supermajority of legislators was required to approve the map, so the legislature’s Democratic majority would not have been able to force through their own proposal as Republican legislators could have done in Iowa. The maps eventually enacted in New Mexico and Utah were also similar to one of the proposals from each state’s commission, but in each case, that proposal was the black sheep of the bunch, the one that most favored the party in power. It also seems likely that the New York legislature is going to vote down all the proposals from that state’s commission. The governors of Maryland and Wisconsin also set up ceremonial redistricting commissions to pressure their legislatures into drawing fairer maps, but the legislatures weren’t even obligated to consider their proposals, so unsurprisingly those were ignored too.
Since gerrymandering became a household phrase over the past decade, reformers have touted redistricting commissions as its solution. As a result, new redistricting commissions of some kind were implemented in nine states ahead of last year. But the outcomes of the 2021-22 redistricting process in commission states are a good reminder that commissions are no panacea. It matters how they are assembled and how much power they are given — something to keep in mind the next time a redistricting commission is proposed in your state.
This article is part of the The DC Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox every weekday.
Now that we’re a year into Joe Biden’s presidency, much of Official Washington is issuing its report cards. In summary: Biden had better hope the coming years are kinder. That said, it’s easy to forget the totally unprecedented time between 2020’s Election Day and Biden’s high-security Inauguration—and all of the ways that chaos laid bare the fragility of the American system.
A new report from Boston Consulting and the nonpartisan the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition, released today, summarizes just how much such transitions rely on the unofficial but sacrosanct commitment to a peaceful transition and how lawmakers could safeguard against a repeat of the messy 78 days in which then-President Donald Trump and his administration spent much of the time building roadblocks for Biden.
The post-voting rallies, the denial of Trump’s loss, Biden having to demand for the keys to buildings and offices he needed to get into, Trump refusing to this day to concede or meet with Biden—none of it was anywhere close to normal. And that’s on top of the now-ex-President’s attempt to have Congress set aside the certified votes and give him four more years. Trump spun-up a violent mob and urged them to march on the Capitol and then found himself on trial as only the second President in history to be impeached.
There are no obvious ways to force outgoing Presidents to acknowledge the facts. But there are ways to compel an outgoing team’s cooperation with the incoming one, so that they can get started on Jan. 20. Nothing about a presidential transition is sexy, but the process does lay the foundation for the administration that follows.
Since 1963, Washington has had an official guidebook for transitions of power. It appears that the cost of John F. Kennedy’s post-election ascension—$300,000, or about $2.6 million in today’s dollars—made an impression. That Presidential Transition Act has, of course, been updated over the years to reflect changes in what incoming teams need, including an incumbent President who can take advantage of planning teams across town to handle anticipated turnover should he be re-elected. These days, Congress sets aside a little less than $10 million; Biden backfilled the balance of $24 million from private donors to cover roughly 10 months of salaries, office space and research for a transition team that reached 1,500 people at its peak.
Some go smoothly, as was the case when George W. Bush made clear that his outgoing raft would treat the incoming team of Barack Obama far better than they met eight years earlier when White House staff stripped the letter W from keyboards after the messy Bush v. Gore case made its way to the Supreme Court. (On Day One of 43’s term, there was no phone book for the Bush West Wing and staffers were wandering around looking for each other. Government oversight aides later put the price of punked keyboards at $5,000.)
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks prompted a 2004 update to the Presidential Transition Act to allow the candidates to pre-vet aides who would need security clearances to hire staff. The Sept. 11 Commission even specified that the slow pace of confirmations had to change. When the first plane smashed into the World Trade Center eight months into Bush’s presidency, only about 30% of his national security appointees were working.
While John McCain mocked then-rival Barack Obama in 2008 of measuring the drapes before Election Day, the Democrats’ scrupulous preparation helped Obama transition into power in the immediate wake of Wall Street’s meltdown. McCain was nominally working on his own transition but didn’t take it nearly as seriously as Obama, who availed himself of federal workspace in downtown D.C.—away from campaign headquarters in Chicago—to build out what would become his team.
Obama’s 2012 rival, Mitt Romney, also famously took transition planning incredibly seriously. The Romney Readiness Project—shorthanded to R2P—was ready with names for almost every one of the political positions scattered throughout the government. Tevi Troy, a veteran of the Bush Administration and two presidential transitions, has a fascinating behind-the-scenes history of Romney’s never-seen-but-excellent effort here, and it’s worth the read. (Ironically, the executive director of R2P later became Trump’s deputy chief of staff tasked with managing the transition to Biden. His boss—the President—didn’t make it easy on the newcomers. “To walk away when the very most important time was coming up—and then at a time where obviously tensions had gone through the roof—I just didn’t feel like that was my duty,” Chris Liddell told the transition scholars for the report.)
For his part, Trump did not take his own transition planning seriously and basically dumped the transition work led by Gov. Chris Christie into a bonfire. (Only losers have to prepare, one person involved in Trump World observed.) Trump instead treated the weeks of transition as a “shambolic” reality show, forcing contenders for Cabinet posts to show up for a red carpet at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club or in Manhattan for dinners to be embarrassed. (Ask Romney whether the frog legs, lamb chops and chocolate cake were worth the headache of the trip to Jean-Georges in Trump International Hotel in New York to audition for Secretary of State.)
Biden, who had seen firsthand the rush of building a government as the Vice President to Obama, took the preparations far more seriously. At its height, Biden’s transition preparations had 450 people vetting potential hires, including about three dozen tasked exclusively with scouring social-media accounts for red flags. His transition team set the ambitious goal of getting 2,800 of the non-Senate-confirmed positions in place within the first 100 days; they got 1,500, according to the report from the Partnership for Public Public Services.
That’s partly because Trump signaled as early as May that he wasn’t willing to go politely, basically sabotaging the required transition planning process that should have been a signal of the standoff over resources that would come. More than $6 million was held-up while Trump pressured his own administration to ignore the results from November of 2020. (This, of course, pales compared to the resistance in sharing COVID-19 information, secure diplomatic lines to return foreign leaders’ calls and even a complete intelligence briefing for the President-elect documented in the new report.)
In the end, Biden ended up having access to the government resources—phones, background checks, travel budgets and office space required by law—for a little less than two months in total before starting his new job. And, even then, cooperation from the incumbent officials was contingent on whether that person had fealty to Trump and his fanciful claims that he had won re-election.
The new report has a slate of useful suggestions on how to improve the transition process so this doesn’t happen again. For instance, its authors suggest, reducing the number of appointees that require Senate confirmation to fill federal posts and streamlining the process to boost government efficiency could go a long way. A plussed-up FBI budget in election years could help speed up background checks for potential hires. The same is true for the National Archives, Office of Presidential Personnel and Office of Personnel Management who are buried in years easily divisible by four. And, while Congress is at it, expanding security clearances for those working on the transition could spot red flags that are obvious to those in the know. (See: Flynn, Michael.)
As a Congress apparently unable to push much of an agenda across the finish line, technical fixes for the next transition might be the rare spot where D.C. can agree that the nuts and bolts of government actually matter, mainly because both parties stand to gain government money for it. Still, it is lost on no one that there is the very real prospect of Trump returning to Washington in a reverse do-over his botched transition. It has both parties’ leaders watching with maxed-out anxiety.
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Last October, President Biden went to Capitol Hill to meet with the Democrats in the House of Representatives. Party members had been feuding over his proposed legislation, and leaders believed only the President could rally them together. Instead Biden stunned the caucus by sending them back to the drawing board. As he was leaving, a member approached him and pleaded, “Mr. President, we need a plan.” Biden didn’t answer, according to a source familiar with the exchange.
Three months later, the fate of Biden’s social-spending and climate package is more uncertain than ever. The pandemic he promised to bring to heel rages out of control. Inflation is at a four-decade high, canceling out rising wages. The border is a mess. Violent crime continues to climb. His approval rating has sunk to the low 40s. In the eyes of many Americans, “it’s just been one disappointment after another,” says Iowa-based nonpartisan pollster J. Ann Selzer. “Joe Biden was supposed to be the expert at dealing with all of these issues. What is it that he’s done right? Other than getting infrastructure passed, what has he done that’s come off really well?”
One year in, there’s a growing sense that the Biden presidency has lost its way. An Administration that pledged to restore competence and normalcy seems overmatched and reactive. Biden has been caught flat-footed by not one but two COVID-19 variants. He has repeatedly failed to close the deal with the Senate he boasted of mastering. The former chair of the foreign relations committee has presided over escalating tensions with Russia and China as well as a chaotic pullout from Afghanistan. The consequences to America’s credibility abroad could be lasting, says Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador in Kabul. “What could be more damaging to internationalism in this country than an internationalist who is perceived as having just completely screwed the pooch?”
Defenders argue that Biden is managing as well as anyone could. Taking office in the shadow of Donald Trump and the Jan. 6 insurrection, he faces a country riven by pre-existing divisions and an opposition that views him as illegitimate. Biden racked up early successes rolling out vaccines and relief funds, they note, and hasn’t gotten sufficient credit for his bipartisan infrastructure bill. “For all this progress, I know there’s a lot of frustration and fatigue in this country,” Biden said of the pandemic at a Jan. 19 press conference, the second he has conducted on U.S. soil since being inaugurated. “We’ve been doing everything we can.”
Yet in a period of historic crisis, the President has been a shrinking figure, giving fewer interviews or press conferences than his predecessors. Voters widely question his capabilities. Privately, top Democrats acknowledge the public is losing faith in his leadership. “What people don’t see is an overarching plan,” a senior Administration official tells TIME.
One major party donor predicts a midterm wipeout. “When they f-cked up Afghanistan, they obliterated the competency thesis, and I don’t know how he comes back from that.” If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog, the old saying goes, but Biden can’t even get that right: Major, a rescued German shepherd featured in Biden’s campaign ads, was rehomed last month after injuring the President and biting two staffers.
If Biden had one job coming in, it was to get the pandemic under control. He campaigned on a plan to tackle the virus with sound science and serious policy rather than Trump’s denial and quackery. Upon taking office, he installed an experienced team and got vaccines out to millions of Americans in a matter of months.
But the pandemic response is now in a rough place. Omicron, while milder than previous variants, has sent cases surging. Hospitals are flooded, and businesses and schools struggle to remain open. In other countries, rapid tests have long been available free or cheap, but here they remain scarce and pricey. Data collection is a patchwork, leaving policymakers reliant on foreign sources for information.
Top scientists voice frustration. “The Administration has done really well on vaccines,” says Dr. Céline Gounder, an epidemiologist at New York University who advised Biden’s transition, “but the other interventions were more of an afterthought.”
Outside advisers presented a national testing proposal in early 2021, for example, and others regularly urged purchasing millions of rapid tests. But the White House remained fixated on the vaccination push. In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that vaccinated people could stop wearing masks. In July, the President declared the U.S. had “gained the upper hand against this virus.”
Within weeks, the declaration of victory looked silly, as vaccinations plateaued and the Delta variant tore through the country. The Administration scrambled to change course, and “those challenges diverted attention from other, more long-range plans,” says Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, another transition adviser, who recently helmed a public critique of the Administration’s COVID-19 response by a group of prominent scientists.
The Administration vowed to let scientists lead the way, but the result has been a confounding lack of coordination. The heads of the CDC, National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration and the President’s COVID-19 task force have made conflicting statements on everything from boosters to quarantines, leaving the public befuddled and anxious. “I would argue that the American people have less trust in federal health officials now than a year ago,” says Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University. In a CBS News poll released Jan. 16, two-thirds of Americans said the U.S. COVID-19 response was going badly.
Since the start of the pandemic, experts have emphasized high-quality masks, yet it took until Jan. 19 for the White House to announce it would begin providing them free to the public. On Jan. 18, the Administration unveiled a website that allows each household to order four free rapid tests. But they won’t ship until late January, after the Omicron wave has crested in many places. “It’s good that the Administration has finally responded to the loud voices of frustration,” Dr. Eric Topol, director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, wrote in December, “but it’s an exemplar of too little, too late.”
Allies are perplexed that an experienced team has failed to prepare for foreseeable obstacles. White House COVID coordinator Jeffrey Zients is a former executive renowned for turning around troubled organizations. Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, managed the Obama Administration’s successful response to the Ebola virus. And Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, led the fight against HIV and AIDS. “Fauci knows the science, Zients knows management, and Klain knows pandemics,” says an operative close to the Administration. “You’d think if something was doable, they could do it. That’s the most vexing thing.”
Biden’s abilities to navigate Congress and bridge his party’s factions were major selling points of his campaign. The early returns were positive. In March, he signed the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion sequel to the multitrillion-dollar Trump-era COVID-19 relief bills that have together made America’s pandemic response one of the most generous in the world. Passed on a party-line vote, the legislation extended unemployment benefits; sent $1,400 checks to individuals; expanded food stamps, paid leave and tax credits for families; and provided billions in funding for local governments and health care. Biden also campaigned on a pledge to bring back bipartisanship, and that, too, seemed promising: in November, he signed a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill that got 19 Republican votes in the Senate, including that of GOP leader Mitch McConnell.
That legislation was supposed to be one major component of Biden’s ambitious domestic agenda. The other cornerstone would be Build Back Better, a mammoth social-spending bill originally priced at $3.5 trillion, with provisions addressing climate change, expanding Medicaid, providing childcare support and raising taxes on the rich. But two moderate Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have stood in the way of the 50 Senate votes needed to pass it, and they have proved immune to Biden’s powers of persuasion. A source close to Manchin says the White House bungled the negotiations in December by failing to keep its commitments, leading him to announce his opposition. “They violated the deal he thought they had,” the source says.
Progressive Democrats who voted for infrastructure with the assurance that social spending would follow feel equally burned. Infighting has spilled into public view. “Our progress has ground to a halt because of the sabotaging of our agenda by Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema,” Senator Bernie Sanders tells TIME. The components of Build Back Better are consistently popular, but Republicans have paid no price for opposing it because the Democratic holdouts stand in the way, Sanders says.
[pullquote]“In my view, we need a major course correction right now.” —Bernie Sanders, U.S. Senator[/pullquote]
Only Biden can bring the factions together. “The President understands that he is the only one that’s going to make this happen,” Representative Pramila Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, tells TIME. “Because it was to him directly that Senator Manchin committed, and it was from him directly, to us and to the country, that he committed that he could get it done.”
Under pressure from civil rights activists and amid concern about Republican efforts to subvert elections, Biden decided to go to the mat on voting rights. In a fiery speech in advance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he dropped his longtime resistance to altering the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster threshold. But far from being pleased, leading Black organizations boycotted the speech. The Senate then planned a series of votes on the issue beginning Jan. 19, which were widely expected to fall short. The only result was likely to be a showcase of the President’s failure on an issue dear to his base.
Liberals and Black voters are naturally demoralized, says Maurice Mitchell, national director of the progressive Working Families Party. Biden “came in with a lot of fanfare about being this creature of the Senate who could play a unique role in cutting deals,” he says. “There are really big pieces of the President’s agenda that are still not settled, and it is really incumbent on him to seal the deal.”
Defenders say it’s unrealistic to expect too much with razor-thin congressional majorities, and complain that Biden hasn’t gotten enough credit for the things he’s accomplished. It may be premature to declare defeat on Build Back Better. “I think the jury’s still out on whether that effort is going to be successful,” says Democratic Senator Mark Warner.
But Democrats fear that a harsh political backlash looms. The President’s approval rating, historically an indicator of how his party will perform in November, is the worst at this stage of any modern presidency besides Trump’s. Only a quarter of Americans in the recent CBS poll thought things were going well, and majorities said Democrats were not focused enough on the economy and inflation. Republicans hold a slight lead in the generic congressional ballot for the first time in years; Gallup found a 14-point swing in party identification toward the GOP over the course of 2021. A raft of congressional Democrats have recently announced their retirements, fearful a wave is coming. “A lot of people have been very blunt with them about what a terrible job they’re doing,” a congressional Democrat says of the White House. “But they’re very sensitive.”
White House insiders describe a tight inner circle of longtime advisers to whom the President is loyal to a fault. “These are basically people who have been going to summer camp together since they were 5,” says the head of a prominent liberal organization. “The upside is that there’s not the same internal knifing you got in prior administrations, but it also means lots of blind spots.” A source who has known Biden for decades says, “It’s a team of competent, long-term staffers, and they’re behaving like that. It’s not a team of rivals with contending opinions.”
Voters hoped Biden would provide a sense of calm and steady leadership. But the reason he hasn’t been more visibly in charge is as much of an open secret as it is a taboo subject in Washington. The 79-year-old President has always been gaffe-prone, but in recent years his unsteadiness has become more pronounced. He tells stories that aren’t true, such as claiming to have been arrested in the civil rights movement, driven a tractor-trailer and intervened in Israel’s Six-Day War. In an August TV interview, he struggled to recall what branch of the military his late son Beau had served in and where he had been deployed. In a September meeting with Senators, he referred to himself as one of their colleagues before correcting himself: “Wait, wait, I’ve got this job now.” At the infrastructure signing ceremony, he bungled Sinema’s name.
Allies react angrily to the suggestion that the man with his finger on the nuclear button has lost a step, calling it a right-wing smear. (One senior official described Biden as having command of policy details in meetings.) But the perception is pervasive. A Jan. 19 Politico poll found 49% of voters doubted Biden’s mental fitness. Large majorities did not consider him “energetic” or a “strong leader.” In an October Harvard-Harris poll, 58% said he was too old to be President.
In one recent focus group of swing voters conducted by a liberal organization and observed by TIME, a Biden voter from Milwaukee said, “I question his competency because of his age. I don’t think he’s in a position to run this country.” In a separate session, a Biden voter from Kentucky said, “I had high hopes for him in the beginning, but he seems more and more not in control. You see him walk around, he kind of shuffles, like a great-grandparent. He just is not that sharp.”
Many Democrats argue that Biden’s low ratings stem from factors beyond his control. He inherited a mess, they note, and has gotten little help from a Republican Party dangerously fixated on conspiracy theories about vaccines and the 2020 election. “The pandemic has created a sense that things are not where people want them to be, and they’re sad about the continuing divisions and disruptions,” says Democratic pollster Margie Omero. “That continues because of the Republicans—it’s not something Biden can change.” Biden, too, doesn’t think the polling is a reflection of how he’s done his job. “I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen,” he said at the Jan. 19 press conference.
Inside the White House, there’s a belief that the press is overly negative, though if anything Biden has benefited with voters and the media alike from the low bar set by Trump. (Given five days’ notice, the Administration declined to make a senior official available to speak on the record for this article, saying the long holiday weekend made scheduling difficult.) Allies who acknowledge change is needed advise the President to be more visible, project strength and pivot away from congressional chaos, deploying the Vice President and Cabinet to sell his policies. “He needs to make the case more forcefully and get more folks out there making the case,” says Rodell Mollineau, an adviser to Biden’s Unite the Country super PAC. “It’s now an election year, and you need to convince the American people that we have made some progress.”
On Jan. 13, Biden returned to Capitol Hill, this time to make a show of strong-arming his party’s Senators to pass voting legislation. But the gambit broadcast weakness instead. Just before he arrived, Sinema blindsided him with a floor speech blasting the idea. In the meeting itself, Biden spent several minutes reminiscing about the days of Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond, Senators reported afterward. Sinema did not speak up in the meeting, and Biden did not call on her to explain herself. One Senator told TIME the President was “soft-spoken” and difficult to hear. Immediately afterward, Manchin reaffirmed his opposition as well.
In the Capitol, reporters clustered around Biden, seeking his perspective on the way forward—a plan. He offered only a shrug. “I hope we can get this done,” the President said. “But I’m not sure.”
—With reporting by Abigail Abrams, Leslie Dickstein, W.J. Hennigan, Nik Popli, Abby Vesoulis and Julia Zorthian
This article is part of the The DC Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox every weekday.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer knew the massive voting-rights package was condemned to failure when he put it on the legislative calendar yesterday. But he wanted to show everyone in his Democratic caucus what that felt like: a gut punch of a defeat for a package that ostensibly everyone in his party and even some Republicans supported on its merits.
The move also served to highlight for voters where Democrats and Republicans stand on the voting rights issue, especially in communities who feel their right to vote is under assault. It’s easy to blame two Democrats who held firm against side-stepping the filibuster to advance the legislation, but the lack of Republican leadership on the issue cannot be ignored—and likely won’t be by voters of color.
Democrats were chasing increased transparency on political cash and expanded chances for less-reliable voters to have their voices counted. Republicans, meanwhile, are fine with the way things are, and maybe even seeking a bit of return to pre-COVID-19 times to tamp down some of that early- and mail-in voting introduced during the pandemic that they historically have opposed.
That highly simplified summary of what’s unfolding on the Hill is going to be an election-year narrative. So, as the Democrats’ 735-page doorstopper of an agenda—stitched together by combining a pair of election bills into one, with a few trims here and there—barrels along towards its inevitable end this evening, Democrats were already turning to state legislatures as the next front in the battle over whose votes are counted or not.
As voting- and civil-rights advocates have been screaming for months, things are not going so well for dear ol’ democracy in state capitals, either. Last year, at least 19 states took steps that made the net result of voting more difficult, according to tracking at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. In all, lawmakers considered more than 440 bills that would make it harder to cast a ballot. More than 150 of those are still actively under consideration, and looking ahead, at least 13 new restrictive bills are pre-loaded in state legislatures’ systems.
And don’t even start on the efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election that still continue—some with frustrating success. Trump and his allies in Arizona are still trying to decertify the results that gave Biden a narrow victory. Pennsylvania Republicans are considering changing the state constitution to trigger an audit of results that lawmakers don’t like. Every step down this path further erodes faith in the American experiment—and is laying the groundwork for a potential repeat of the Jan. 6 failed insurrection.
It’s a lot of time and effort spent on a problem that even the most critical voices of American democracy have trouble claiming is a real problem. Even as then-President Donald Trump was trying to cajole fellow conservatives to “find” him votes and to plant the seed of The Big Lie, his own deeply conservative Attorney General, Bill Barr, conceded that there was no significant fraud.
But among rank-and-file activists and reliable consumers of conservative media, this is a ticking crisis that needs to be confronted, along with the ghouls of Critical Race Theory and parental exclusion. And Republicans have a carte blanche in a lot of legislative office buildings to feed the mob that’s already consumed a lot of bad information. Of the 98 legislative chambers in the country, Republicans have control over 61 of them and have total control of state government in 23 states. (Democrats have 37 legislative chambers and run 15 states.)
The states that have opened their election playbooks for review are reliably red, where no amount of legendary—and fact-challenged—Kennedy-caliber ballot stuffing could make a difference. Wyoming, which broke for Trump by 44 points, has introduced new restrictions to voting access. So have Trump strongholds of Idaho (36 points) Oklahoma (33 points) and Arkansas (28 points). Of the 19 states that made changes, only five broke in Biden’s favor. For the shameless party operatives—in both parties, to be fair—there is an electoral advantage to be had by shaping the edges of the battlefield.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris last week visited Georgia to warn about pernicious tweaks in state laws that make it tougher for some communities to vote. Democrats at the U.S. Capitol have been sounding the alarm as state lawmakers and Governors have started adding voter-fraud task forces and special policing units to chase a crime that, statistically, does not exist. An exemplary Associated Press investigation of every voter-fraud complaint in the battleground states found fewer than 475 suspect ballots cast in 2020.
During the voting bill’s last ill-fated hours in Washington, Democrats were fuming that they were powerless to deliver on their campaign promises because two of their own refused to change the rules and allow them to pass legislation through the Senate with 60 votes. The trouble-makers of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema may be some of the most loathed people inside the Democratic caucus for some time to come and already are getting primary chatter.
To be fair, going nuclear on the filibuster—even narrowly—is a risky step, regardless of the party. Democrats say they are sick of letting even the easy dunks like voting rights go unplayed, but there is absolutely zero belief among progressives that Republican Leader Mitch McConnell won’t do the same should the GOP claim a unified government after the 2024 elections. It’s easy to see chaos coming.
All of which is to say this: if you’re worried about being able to cast your ballot this fall for the midterms, you’d be better served worrying about what’s happening in Carson City, Nev., than watching the Capitol here in D.C. In state government buildings, things are actually getting done, whereas lawmakers in Washington are doing a whole lot of talking about legislation that two rogue Democrats are tanking for fear of looking partisan. It makes for drama at the Capitol, for sure. But the fundamental right to participate in democracy is being defined closer to home than the Hill. It might be worth checking-in with your capitals with plenty of time ahead of voter-registration deadlines.
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Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.
Like a decent chunk of American workers currently, I’ve been feeling the effects of burnout.
Of course, I can chalk up how I’m feeling to a number of self-imposed expectations and personal habits (or lack thereof), like taking on too many “side hustles” outside of my nine-to-five, or my own forgetfulness when it comes to making lunches during the work day, or working longer hours — as many remote employees are — because the news cycle is relentless and never-ending. I’m by no means the first person to acknowledge this, but being a political reporter is exhausting. And each week, at least for the last year or so, it seems the movie has been the same: Democrats want to pass legislation that has virtually no hope because of partisan polarization and the reality of Senate math, so it fails — or gets kicked down the line. To be clear, I believe the same would happen if the party roles were reversed, too.
But for the most part, I was under the impression that voters were OK with that reality. Survey after survey showed that Republican voters didn’t understand — or just didn’t like — Democrats, and vice-versa. But now there appear to be more voters like me out there: tired of the current state of divisiveness but pessimistic that the ongoing political rancor will subside anytime soon.
According to a September Public Agenda/USA Today/Ipsos poll, 72 percent of Americans thought it would be “good for the country” if there was less political hostility and if people focused more on common ground. But there’s little faith in that reality. Not only did 42 percent of Americans say that they believed political resentment would increase among ordinary Americans, but also many held “very unfavorable” feelings toward Republican voters (18 percent) and Democratic voters (13 percent). Some of this shouldn’t be too surprising. As FiveThirtyEight contributor Lee Drutman has written, deep-seated hatred and polarization have come to dominate politics as we know it today What’s striking, though, is that even among all the political exhaustion, voters — myself included — aren’t hopeful it’ll get better anytime soon.
In fact, Americans were even less optimistic and more nervous about this new year than they were heading into 2021. A December Axios/Momentive poll found that 45 percent of Democrats, 69 percent of Republicans and 54 percent of all U.S. adults were fearful for what awaited the world in 2022. (On the previous year’s survey, 19 percent of Democrats, 58 percent of Republicans and 36 percent of all adults were fearful of what awaited the world in 2021.) And of those surveyed, politics remained top of mind. Seventeen percent cited “democracy” as the most important issue for them right now — second only to “jobs and the economy,” at 31 percent. Moreover, Biden’s presidency has also seemed to invoke feelings of exasperation and bitterness. A January Global Strategy Group/GBAO/Navigator Research survey found that a majority of Americans (52 percent) felt “frustrated” about politics since Biden’s election. The sentiment was particularly high among Republicans (78 percent), but independents (55 percent) and roughly one-quarter of Democrats (29 percent) felt the same.
But what is the end to this cynicism? In January, YouGov/McCourtney Institute released data showing that over half of Americans were “extremely worried” about where the country was going in the next year. Yet, among those hopeful for the future, politics played a key role; Democrats were often hopeful about their party holding power, and Republicans were often hopeful that their party would reclaim Congress in the midterms. That is, for all our weariness at the current state of affairs and our frustration with existing polarization, a lot of optimism still hinges on whether our party of choice is in power (and whether they’re doing what we want them to do).
I say this not to belittle voters, but because I want to better understand the impetus for these feelings. Considering that some research suggests your political affiliation can influence seemingly apolitical decisions and seep into other facets of life, my original hypothesis was that this January served as a reminder of the anniversary of Biden’s first year in office — especially given a number of failed campaign promises — which has sparked a lot of frustration and disappointment. And while that might be true, some research and polling also suggests that political burnout might also be chalked up to things outside of Biden’s control, like pandemic fatigue or personal stressors.
In fact, a recent Quinnipiac University poll found that one-third of Americans (34 percent) said the COVID-19 pandemic had had an impact on their level of loneliness. Moreover, a September survey from MTV/Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that things like their fear of catching COVID-19 (29 percent) and their personal relationships (34 percent) were a “major source” of stress for American teens and adults. (Additionally, for adults in that survey, 42 percent said that their personal finances were a major source of stress.) And for Republicans, evidence shows that Trump supporters in particular are more likely to have limited social networks, which might contribute to reported feelings of stress and unease.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer on where to go from here. On top of our existing disappointment with the political system, there’s also polling suggesting that Americans with more moderate political views — on both sides of the aisle — are less engaged. Regarding the 2020 election, for example, the Pew Research Center found that Americans on the far-left and far-right were the most likely to vote, show support for a political candidate on social media and contribute money to politics. But that still leaves a good deal of groups toward the middle who were less inclined to follow day-to-day politics and a large chunk of Americans still don’t vote.
All of this, of course, might lead to the haunting sense that things will never get better — and maybe that’s a persistent feature of our politics now. But I suppose the least we could do now is show compassion to ourselves and others during these trying times. We’re living in what feels like an ongoing series of life-changing events, much of which is out of our control. So, at the risk of sounding cliché, just remember that things can — hopefully — go up from here.
Other polling bites
- Americans are increasingly worried that the pandemic is getting worse. A new poll from Gallup found that 58 percent believed the coronavirus situation in the U.S. was getting “a lot” or “a little” worse, compared with just 18 percent who said the same in October. But these trends have fluctuated greatly in the past. A year ago, for instance, the share of Americans who felt that the pandemic was improving surpassed the percentage who felt it was getting worse, per Gallup. That said, while case numbers have plateaued or even decreased in some areas of the country, the omnipresence of omicron has meant that the pandemic is more decentralized with hot spots everywhere.
- According to Gallup, Biden’s approval rating has dropped to a new low of 40 percent, down from 57 percent at the start of his presidency. Overall, Trump’s average first-year job approval was worse: 38 percent versus 49 percent for Biden. Biden’s support declined most dramatically among independents, at 28 points, but it also dropped by 16 points among Democrats. For Republicans — who had largely negative views of Biden’s presidency from the onset (his approval rating was only 11 percent then) — the decline was 6 points.
- Last June, 35 percent of Americans in an Economist/YouGov poll said they had a good idea of what critical race theory was, though 65 percent said they had heard at least a little about it. Now some 80 percent say they have heard of it, according to a University of Massachusetts Amherst poll. The poll didn’t ask people how they felt about critical race theory, but it did ask whether public schools should teach students about racial inequality. Roughly three-quarters of adults said it should be taught to some degree, although this varied heavily by political affiliation: 52 percent of Republicans said that public schools should not teach students about racial inequality at all, while only 4 percent of Democrats felt the same way.
- Americans are also divided over what should happen to statues and memorials dedicated to historical figures who enslaved people. According to a poll by YouGovAmerica, a plurality of Americans (42 percent) believe these memorials should remain in public places, though 36 percent believe they should be removed. That said, half of Americans said the government should stop building them, per another YouGovAmerica poll. However, 53 percent of Republicans opposed ending the building versus just 12 percent of Democrats.
- Though Democrats held an average 3-point edge over Republicans in Americans’ party ID for all of 2021 per Gallup, the pollster found a striking shift over the course of the year: Democrats had an average advantage of 9 points in the first quarter of 2021, but by the last quarter, the GOP held an average 5-point advantage — among the largest shifts measured for each party in any quarter since 1991, when Gallup began tracking party ID and party lean regularly. Technically, the share of Americans who identify as independent far outstrips the share who identify as Democrats or Republicans, but the share of true independents — those who don’t lean toward either party — remains very small, at an average of 9 percent as of the last quarter of 2021.
- Wordle’s popularity has exploded since the game debuted in October, with some 2 million people playing daily. The growth has come primarily from young adults — according to Morning Consult, 14 percent of American adults said they played the game, including 26 percent of millennials and 18 percent of Gen Zers. But Wordle’s popularity is still behind mobile games like Candy Crush, which 52 percent of adults in the U.S. said they played.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,1 41.9 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 53.4 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.5 points). At this time last week, 42.3 percent approved and 51.4 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -9.1 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 43.5 percent and a disapproval rating of 51.9 percent, for a net approval rating of -8.5 points.
In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot,2 Republicans currently lead by 1.6 percentage points (43.3 percent to 41.7 percent). A week ago, Republicans led Democrats by 0.6 points (42.4 percent to 41.8 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Republicans by 1.6 points (41.8 percent to 43.4 percent).
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