Tuesday, May 4, 2021

BTRTN: Joe Biden, The Six Trillion Dollar Man

Tom with the BTRTN 2021 April Month in Review.

For those who wished only for Joe Biden to return order to our government and lower the collective temperature from the Trump years, you may be disappointed. Sure, Biden has been a calming presence, a comforting leader and an uber-conventional president.  But too much was broken in those Trump years; there are too many wounds to heal, too much change required and too little time to waste.  And no one appears to know that better than Biden.

Many envisioned Biden as a “transition” president, one who would spend his first term fixing the obvious COVID mitigation and distribution issues, reversing the worst of Trump’s excesses on climate change, immigration and other matters of grave import, and mending fences overseas, before turning it over to Gen X-er Kamala Harris in 2024 to lead the march into the future.  That is, essentially, apart from the 2024 piece, how Joe Biden campaigned.  He was positioned as a steady hand who would restore science, competence and empathy to government, but not scare off those Midwestern centrist voters crucial to his election coalition with visions of a progressive utopia and its twin pillars of Medicare For All and a Green New Deal.

But after watching President Joe Biden in action, one-third of the way toward a $6 trillion investment to reinvent the American economy, one has to wonder:  what happened to that guy? 

The month of April ended with the traditional “100 day” benchmark of the new administration.  Biden used the occasion (and his first speech to a Joint Session of Congress) not only to celebrate the results of his administration’s crisis management, but also to define the future of his presidency, and of the country he wants to overhaul.  While some progressives may still feel that Biden’s reach is “not nearly enough,” (quoting Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), Biden is making it perfectly clear that he intends to make the most of his one shot, within the framework of political possibility.  He knows his window may extend only to the 2022 midterms -- yet with the barest minimum of majorities to work with in both the House and the Senate, Biden is reaching for a domestic legacy on a par with that of FDR and LBJ. 

This is not a time to be turning down the volume on your TV set or dispensing with your political bookmarks.  A revolution is happening before your eyes.

The early days of the Biden administration were indeed focused on COVID management, economic stimulus and Trump reversals.  The signature triumph was the passage of the aptly named American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion behemoth that, among many other stimuli, provided a $1,400 check to most Americans, aid for small businesses, state and local governments, and increased support for COVID testing and distribution. 

By any measure Biden’s initial efforts at crisis management have been a resounding success.  When he took office in January, the U.S. was suffering through 1.25 million new COVID cases per week; now we are down to just over 300,000.  A truly grisly total of 23,000 Americans were dying from COVID each week back in January; now that still awful number is below 5,000.  Less than 1% of all Americans were fully vaccinated as of his Inaugural; now over 30% of the country is fully protected, to the point where the issue is no longer supply, but demand.  The economy grew at a startling 6.4% pace in the first quarter, and nearly a million jobs were added in March.  Biden’s approval rating is steady at 53% (roughly 10 points higher than Trump’s at the time of his departure) and he is getting high marks for his management of COVID (62%, about 20 points higher than Trump) and the economy (52%, about the same as Trump).  

From the chaos of the January 6 insurrection, Biden has accomplished a remarkable turnabout in short order. There is ample evidence to support Biden’s claim that “America is moving again” and that America was receptive to his policies.  Polls show that those who believe America is “on the right track” rose from 20% in January (pre-Inaugural) to 43% in April.  That figure had jumped immediately when Biden took office, from 20% to 34%, and it has risen each month since under Biden, from that 34% in late January to 43% in April.

The twin pillars of Biden’s future are not Medicare For All or the Green New Deal but rather the more soothing sounding, yet still monumental American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan.  The former was announced at the end of March, with a $2 trillion price tag, and it immediately set up a furious debate on the definition of the word “infrastructure.”  Biden’s bill stretched far beyond the term’s traditional categories of roads, bridges, transit systems and electric grids, to include obvious extensions such as water supply and high-speed broadband, and more expansive (and controversial) ones such as new child care facilities, raising wages for home care workers, and retraining workers.  But while the GOP screamed “overreach” and complained about the broadened definitions, Biden did, after all, call it a “jobs” bill and not an “infrastructure” bill.

Biden announced the American Families Plan just a few days ago, in the Joint Session speech.  This plan differs from the other two in that, while also in the $2 trillion range, it pays for itself through tax increases on the wealthy (those who earn more than $400,000 per year) and corporations.  The plan is chock full of programs to bolster families:  $1 trillion in investments, including four years of free education and direct support for families to help with quality child care, and another $800 billion in tax cuts for families and workers.  And given its funding source, a clear goal is to take a step to level the income inequality playing field.

Biden’s “marketing” approach for his monumental program has been quite sophisticated, and relies on three main points.  The first is his confidence – borne of polling – that a healthy minority, at least, of Republican voters, along with the vast majority of Democrats, support his plans.  This enables him to claim that he is succeeding in his Inaugural promise of bipartisanship and unity, redefining the terms in the context of American voters rather than members of Congress (since no GOP representative has signed on to any Biden proposal as yet).  The second is his willingness to entertain bipartisan measures, demonstrated by his many meetings with GOP officials, devoting time to at least appear to be listening – all the while firmly assuring America that failure to act is not an option, and he is not afraid of moving ahead without GOP support.

But the third and most subtle of Biden’s marketing approaches – his special trick -- is his utter boringness.  There’s an old expression that you can say almost anything, no matter how critical or damning, with a smile on your smile.  In Biden’s case, he is testing the proposition that he can sell anything if he keeps a low profile and carries his message in a mind-numbingly banal manner.  That cozy, whispering monotone you hear is actually describing a stunning re-invention of America, with changes that will touch each and every one of us.  But you would never know it from the tone.

Essentially he is continuing his campaign persona, far from the backslapping, mic-loving, too much touching, gaffe prone Biden of old.  This new version could not be more disciplined or restrained, and the GOP is having a very difficult time finding an attack line on a regular guy whom everybody seems to like.  And, as in the campaign, the low-key approach seems to work well among Independents and centrist Democrats, who found Bernie Sanders’ thunderous bolts of Democratic socialism frightening and threatening.  But what he is actually saying has moved far closer to Sanders than expected.

But for all the warm and fuzziness, the harsh reality is that Biden’s agenda will likely have its outer boundaries defined by Joe Manchin (and to a lesser extent, Kyrsten Sinema).  Biden seems to be satisfying Bernie and the progressives, who are not going to derail the $6 trillion dollar man for lack of ambition.  But Manchin has already stated that, having gone along with the reconciliation-driven American Rescue Plan, he is not going to be a party to reshaping the country with the two latest bills without bipartisan support.  Whether he is posturing remains to be seen.  Biden can be persuasive, and the bills will be loaded with spending that will end up in West Virginia. 

But for those of you who would vilify Manchin for balking, keep in mind that Democrats have no business holding a Senate seat in his deep red state.  Trump won in West Virginia by 42 points, and Manchin’s GOP Senate colleague Shirley Moore Capito won reelection in 2020 by 43 points.  Manchin won by only 3 points in 2018.  Capito voted with Trump 96% of the time; Manchin did so only 50% of the time (according to fivethirtyeight).  The Democrats need Manchin to hold this Senate seat, and thus need to cut him some slack and help him find a way to get to yes on the Biden program without jeopardizing his reelection chances in 2024,

These bills will be much harder to pass than the American Rescue Plan, and will tax Senate Leader Chuck Schumer’s talents to the limit and then some.  But the Biden Administration is approaching them much differently than the first bill, setting aside time for months of negotiation and clearly signaling a desire to do so in a more traditional bipartisan manner.  There is already talk of perhaps breaking up the bills into smaller portions, some of which of can be passed with GOP votes, with the more expansive perhaps reverting to the strictly partisan reconciliation method (Manchin willing).

Essentially, Biden has won the trust of most of America with his COVID management, and appears to have convinced the majority of the electorate that government can be a proactive agent for good, delivering real results on issues that are difficult for the private sector to address, of which surely a global pandemic is one.  Now he is asking America to take that belief and extend it dramatically, in a reshaping that will touch almost every aspect of the American economy.

Another such issue is climate change, and in April Biden staked out a position far more progressive than he previously indicated he would back.  He announced new U.S. goals at his own climate summit in late April, and they are far more aggressive than that of Obama:  a 50% reduction of carbon emissions (from 2004 levels) by 2030.  This will involve an enormous transition in the U.S. economy, from the full embrace of electric cars (which currently account for only 2% of U.S. vehicles) and to the winding down of fossil-fuel powered energy (yes, including in Manchin’s coal-heavy West Virginia).

Biden also overruled his generals to announce the departure of American troops from Afghanistan by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the devastating terrorist bombings on U.S. soil that started us down the path of the “endless war.” 

The other big event in April was the trial of former Minneapolis police office Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd nearly a year ago.  Chauvin was convicted on all counts of murder and will be sentenced in the coming months.  While there was palpable relief across the country that a just verdict had been found, all that verdict proved was that, in America, it is possible to convict a white office of the cold-blooded murder of a Black man if you happen to have indisputable video evidence of an extremely obvious crime as it happened.  Beyond that, there is little comfort.  While the trial was in progress, there was an appalling series of Black deaths at the hands of white police officers, all with less clarity around the circumstances, but with the same tragic outcome.  These cases are the ones that usually result in acquittals, and it surely remains to be seen whether the George Floyd case, with the Chauvin conviction, will change that dynamic in any meaningful way.  On the political front, GOP Senator Tim Scott now has the ball in the battle for police reform legislation, and faces the unenviable task of finding nine of his GOP colleagues to go along with his efforts, and join with the 50 Democratic Senators who are clamoring for action.


What else can we say but:  Matt Gaetz. 



Joe Biden’s approval rating remained in the same mid-50’s range in April that he has carried through his young presidency.  He remains at a +13 net rating, which is quite encouraging in these divisive times.  


























Biden is getting high marks across the board for his handling of the two largest issues on his plate, COVID and the economy.  As stated, he is outperforming Trump by 20 points on COVID management, and holding with him on the economy, long viewed as Trump’s strongest suit.  And the nation has responded to Biden’s leadership with a steady increase in those who feel the country is on the right track, more than doubling where Trump left it in the aftermath of the January 6 Insurrection and the Big Lie that inspired it.  


% approval of president on issues



Biden Current vs. Trump 2021


























Right Track










The “Bidenometer” has begun to move sharply upward as the impact of Biden’s decisions and policies begins to be felt.  It has now moved from the baseline of zero at the start of his time in office to a robust +64.

This increase has been driven by a substantial improvement in the GDP and Consumer Confidence, and to a lesser extent by upward movement in the Dow and a small drop in the unemployment rate.  Only the price of gas has moved in the “wrong” direction, though the low gas prices of 2020 actually reflected low demand, given COVID.  Thus the upward movement of gas prices is not necessarily a “negative” sign.  The +64 index means that on average, our five economic measures have improved by 64% since Biden’s inaugural.

As a reminder, this measure is designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

This exclusive BTRTN measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, you can see from the chart below that under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to only +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward to +64 under Biden. 

Presidents >>>







Measures (all as of last day of term, except GDP which is rolling last 12 months)

End Clinton  1/20/01

End Bush 1/20/09

End Obama 1/20/17

End Trump 1/20/21 (base= 0)

Biden March 2021

Biden March 2021

Bidenometer (Now) >>>














  Unemployment Rate







  Consumer Confidence







  Price of Gas







  Dow Jones







  GDP (last 12 months)








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Notes on methodology:

BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.

For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.

The Trumpometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Biden Inaugural on January 20, 2021, on an average percentage change basis. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump took office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.


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