President Biden is discovering the hard way that standing at a podium bathed in blood-red light, flanked by marines, and denouncing your political opponents as threats to the country is not as popular a move as he hoped. Poll after poll finds Americans repulsed by the September 1 fear-fest in Philadelphia, which drew comparisons to V for Vendetta and Star Wars for its over-the-top authoritarian tone. The president tried to convince the country that his critics are dangerous, but he seems to have convinced many, instead, that the real peril lives in the White House.
"It represents a dangerous escalation in rhetoric and is designed to incite conflict among Americans" was the choice of 56.8 percent of respondents asked in a Trafalgar/Convention of States poll to characterize Biden's speech.* Another 35.5 percent called it "acceptable campaign messaging" and 7.7 percent weren't sure.
Sixty percent of respondents told the Harvard CAPS/Harris poll that the speech "divides [the country] and holds it back" while 54 percent added that it "was an example of fear mongering."
"62 percent of Americans believed Biden's comments about Trump and his MAGA followers 'increases division in the country,'" chimes in the I&I/TIPP poll. "Perhaps surprisingly, Democrats—at 73 percent—were more likely to say that Biden's MAGA comments increased division than either Republicans (50 percent) or independents (57 percent)."
That really is a bit of a surprise, though it might be that those who weren't already on Team Blue started with such low expectations that the president's exercise in frothing at the mouth didn't offer much more room for disappointment. After all, the Philadelphia speech came after Biden had already accused his political enemies of flirting with "semi-fascism."
It's true that President Biden's approval rating bounced back in recent weeks. The FiveThirtyEight average has him at merely 11 points underwater rather than the laughable 20 points he hit back in July. But the reaction to his "threats" speech suggests he's either poised to send his popularity back off a cliff, or that he's just firmed up his standing among the true believers while horrifying everybody else. Both Trafalgar and Harvard CAPS/Harris found a majority of Democrats favoring the speech in contrast to I&I/TIPP, so make of that what you will. Everybody found the event unpopular with the general public.
That said, Joe Biden isn't the entire Democratic Party. His foot-stomping doesn't necessarily mean bad news for co-partisans as they prepare for the midterm elections. But he's certainly not doing the brand any favors when he tears up his 2020 promises to act as a unifier.
"I don't look at this in terms of the way he does, blue states and red states," Biden insisted during the final debate of the campaign as he contrasted himself with then-President Donald Trump. "They're all the United States. … I'm running as a proud Democrat, but I'm going to be an American president."
An American president except for the half the country he calls out as representing "extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic" it appears. That he's not impressing anybody is clear when people are asked what really worries them.
"Do you think that the president Biden is fairly raising issues around MAGA Republicans or is the President trying to avoid talking about inflation, immigration, crime and other issues?" Harvard CAPS/Harris asked in its poll. A majority (59 percent) of respondents said the president is trying to change the subject at a time when people have serious concerns about the state of the country and the world beyond and his administrations is drawing lousy ratings pretty much across the board.
Even more concerning to the president and the ascendant progressive wing of the Democratic Party is where those polled see the real danger when it comes to political movements in the United States. Fifty-five percent of respondents in the Harvard CAPS/Harris survey said they're more concerned about "the socialist left" while 45 percent answered that they're more concerned about "MAGA Republicans."
Of course, it makes sense to focus on the "extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic" that you see actually controlling the White House and Congress, rather than an alternate extremism that's out of power. But the sizeable percentage worried about MAGA Republicans along with the looming midterm elections raise an important question: Why not both?
Authoritarian factions have taken dominant positions in both major political parties. Which faction is more dangerous is a matter of who is in a position to implement their policies and demonstrate how much harm they can do. At the moment, the Democrats control the presidency, the House, and (barely) the Senate and get to reap the lack of rewards for Americans' unhappiness with inflation, crime, and the general direction of the country. After the GOP inevitably gets back into a position of authority in D.C., it will have another opportunity to show how much damage it can inflict and maybe Americans will reconsider their assessment of relative perils.
But, right now, Joe Biden is president, and his party wields the power of the federal government. That includes the FBI, which raided the home of the last president, as well as the IRS, which just received an infusion of funds to extract more taxes from the population. Both vastly powerful agencies suffer declining public trust (as does the government overall). That leaves Americans, outside of the Democratic Party's core loyalists, deeply unimpressed when the person with the greatest authority over that vast apparatus tries to smear opponents as the real danger.
Keep in mind that a significant majority of Americans (67 percent as of 2017, according to Gallup) view big government as the greatest threat to the country. Standing at the head of that government and lashing out at your political enemies isn't how the president of the United States convinces people otherwise. Instead, it makes an already unpopular political figure look desperate, unhinged, and potentially the very danger he insists is posed by others.
Joe Biden did himself no favors with that inflammatory speech in Philadelphia. He almost certainly worsened political strife in an already divided country that certainly could have used the moderate unifier he promised to be on the campaign trail far more than the inarticulate demagogue he's been since taking office. Whether he damaged his party's prospects in the process is something we'll discover only when voters cast their ballots in November.
* This column has been updated to correct the name of a poll.