Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Oliver Contreras/Sipa/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Something strange has been happening to my in-box. It’s still a wasteland, a ghastly stream of spam and requests from an endless array of politicians and political organizations. But the GOP fundraising emails — usually the loudest, angriest, most conspiratorial part of the mix — seem to have lost their main character.
By last count, I’ve now received 20 in a row in the past few hours — from national party committees, state parties, local candidates, PACs, super PACs, scam PACs, think tanks — that have nothing specific at all to say about Joe Biden. The spiciest message to base voters came from a Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, who just wants your support so he can “Make Biden Irrelevant Again.” Another is trying to make “Bidenflation” happen. The president is barely featured at all in the dozens of missives I saw earlier today or in the hundreds I received earlier this week. He’s not in Republican candidates’ TV or digital ads, replaced almost entirely by scary visions of Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders. In one recent set of spots targeting vulnerable House Democrats, the National Republican Congressional Committee flashes Biden’s face for less than a second, and only alongside four others, while Pelosi is named out loud and both Rashida Tlaib and Maxine Waters get more airtime than the guy in the Oval Office. Even Donald Trump barely mentions him in his erratic spray of I-can’t-believe-they’re-not-tweets statements from Mar-a-Lago.
It’s no secret that Republicans are broadly flailing in their early efforts to develop a consistent semi-post-Trump message for themselves beyond insisting against all reason that the past election was stolen. But they’ve also proven completely unable to demonize Biden as they have recent Democratic commanders-in-chief and as Democrats have recent Republican ones.
He’s not quite Teflon Joe, but more than four months into his administration, Biden is shaping up to be the first president to escape serious vilification from his opponents in at least 30 years.
The numbers tell plenty of the story: By late May, Biden’s approval rating was nearly 55 percent and his disapproval roughly 40, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average. Four months earlier, when he was inaugurated, 53 percent of the country approved of him, and that number has, since then, never broken 56 or fallen below 52. When he became president 36 percent disapproved — that figure has never risen above 42 or fallen below 34. As CNN’s Harry Enten recently wrote, movement that minimal “can be ascribed to statistical noise,” making Biden’s image “the most consistent through the early part of his presidency of any president since World War II.” One senior Democratic strategist helping set his party up for the midterms told me recently that, politically speaking, “it feels like Joe Biden was inaugurated yesterday.”
But this new political reality goes further than stability or even basic popularity. Biden is essentially absent from Republicans’ early messaging as they craft their midterms strategies — unlike Trump in 2018 and Barack Obama in 2010 — because even Americans who won’t vote for him feel mostly okay about him as a person and can’t find all that much to get fired up about.
It was not obvious from the outset that this was how the Biden presidency — or the candidacy that preceded it — would play out. Even Biden’s top aides, who have been at his side for decades and who talked themselves into a 2020 campaign by promoting his long-held popularity, found it surprising as they began to see and understand this dynamic and its durability.
When the ex-VP started getting serious about running for president in 2020, his political operation hadn’t done any proprietary polling on his image in ages. Some of the groups supporting his candidacy splurged for a research blitz early in 2019, according to Democrats involved in the project, and found in early focus groups of various kinds of target voters that Americans had broadly consistent views of him, even if they were vaguely filtered through partisan lenses. Voters knew he’d been Obama’s partner, that he’d experienced a lot of loss in his family, and that he was generally thought of as a good, if liberal, guy. They seldom knew many specifics beyond those but were almost never willing to change their baked-in semi-positive impression of him, even when presented with specific attacks.
“Republicans worked overtime to make previous Democratic presidents seem alien or elitist. It is hard to do that with Biden. He is ‘middle-class Joe’ and a good family man, and for most voters he is ‘one of us’ instead of ‘one of them,’” explained Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who conducts research for Priorities USA, the main Democratic super-PAC, which backed Biden in the general election. “Voters may disagree with Biden on issues, but even then they still have a sense that his heart is in the right place. How do you generate a lot of animus toward a guy like that?”
This is, undoubtedly, in no small part because he has been around forever, with a fairly familiar, defined brand. But it is also clearly because he is a white man, subject to none of the racism and sexism that Republican opponents threw at Obama and Hillary Clinton for years and decades, respectively. Conservative voters who agreed with those smears often see Biden as somewhat inoffensive.
“The best criticism of a political opponent is a criticism that’s essentially true. If the criticism is essentially false, it will not resonate with most voters. You can’t create something out of nothing, and [Biden] hasn’t given any sustenance or support to the idea that he is some kind of senile old man or some far-left-wing socialist,” Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster, told me. “There are plenty of things on which you can legitimately criticize President Biden, starting with breathtaking levels of debt-fueled spending which will create, I am afraid, runaway inflation.” But that just doesn’t cut it with GOP voters used to Trump’s provocations. And “that’s different,” Ayres, said, “from trying to paint him as a senile old quasi-Marxist.”
Strategists in Biden’s camp were confident that most Republican attempts to redefine him would fall short, but it wasn’t clear to them as they approached the primary that this would be true for Democrats, too. For Biden allies gathered at his permanent headquarters in Philadelphia and his mobile one in Miami for the first primary debate in the summer of 2019, Kamala Harris’s attack on his busing record was an immediate test case. In dial testing that night and in BidenWorld polling over the next few days, though, Biden’s reputation budged only slightly, including among Black voters, who made up his base. His image, his strategists figured, was pretty hardened.
As it became Trump’s turn to take him on, they found this extended to Biden’s public perception as a middle-of-the-road conciliator, too. Biden’s campaign and its allies had spent months worried that Trump’s lies and outrages would effectively paint Biden as either a corrupt swamp creature, an out-of-touch relic, or a secret radical. There was plenty of evidence he’d go to extreme depths to try — his first impeachment was the result of one attempt.
But none of these lines stuck, even as Trump and his campaign spent millions spreading the message that Biden would abolish the suburbs, that his son Hunter was at the nexus of an international conspiracy-slash-grift run by the ex-VP, and that he was essentially senile. As the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel memorably reported that summer, by July the conservative publisher Regnery had printed just one book purporting to expose the true Biden, compared to eight about Clinton and 13 about Obama at the same point in previous election cycles. Long before Trump’s campaign brought one of Hunter Biden’s business partners to a general-election debate in an attempt to draw attention to a Rudy Giuliani–driven story line about messages on Hunter’s laptop, Biden’s aides had concluded that one reason these attacks were falling flat was that enough voters were, luckily for them, willing to see Biden as a sympathetic human before they saw him as a cynical pol. The argument that he was a Trojan horse for Sanders’s politics was easily swatted away, since he’d run a brutal, very public primary against those ideas.
They always made a point to correct the lies or smears but rarely felt the need to go so far as to offer character witnesses to fend off the attacks’ unseemly implications — at least 40 percent of the country was always going to be against him, Biden team research showed, but only half of that was intense, devoted opposition.
To the extent that any one line of personal attack worried Biden’s strategists, it was his age. But they found quickly that any time Trump leaned into that argument, he or his surrogates would lean in too far, essentially accusing Biden of being ancient and out of it rather than simply suggesting he was losing a step. Whenever that happened, the bar for his performance was lowered immeasurably, and Biden’s aides figured out that they could simply schedule Biden for a town hall on cable TV, showcasing his perfectly reasonable interactions with real voters in a controlled environment — a trick they have repeated in the early days of his presidency.
Of course, none of this, by itself, is any guarantee of continued political buoyancy. Biden may be on track to be the least vilified president since George H.W. Bush, but that distinction wasn’t enough to win Bush reelection. In his opponents’ eyes, he didn’t have an evil reputation but a wimpy one. Anyway, Democrats appear likely to lose the House and maybe the Senate in 2022 no matter how many voters refuse to dislike Biden himself.
More immediately, though, Biden’s image minders are careful to acknowledge that he hasn’t yet thrown his full attention or political capital behind the controversial issues that could most inflame the right. There’s been plenty for Republicans to criticize him on, and many have dutifully knocked his handling of the child-migrant surge, the violence in the Middle East, Chinese relations, his decision to end the American troop presence in Afghanistan, and so on. But Biden’s big legislative pushes so far, on COVID relief and infrastructure, have been politically popular and hard for opponents to caricature beyond paint-by-numbers complaints about big spending. It’s the next tranche of policies likely to reach Biden’s plate that have a track record of proving more politically complicated, such as voting rights and police reform and perhaps immigration and gun control.
Still, Republicans have had plenty of opportunities to at least try redefining Biden by the multitude of crises he’s facing, and they’ve largely passed, to Democratic pros’ general bafflement. (One mused to me that he would be a lot more worried if Sean Hannity were broadcasting from the border every night or leaning into the rise in crime within cities. But he’s not.)
The traditional early measure of the political climate in a new presidency is the first-year gubernatorial races in Virginia. There, the Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin has opted to occasionally knock the record of the sitting Democratic governor as he finished out his primary as one of the relative moderates in the race. He’s been calling for voting restrictions, questioning the 2020 election results and promising to institute the right-wing “1776 project” curriculum. He has hardly mentioned Biden at all.