Poll: Biden bets big on Build Back Better — but the more Democrats cut, the less popular it gets

·West Coast Correspondent
·8 min read

Late last month, President Biden warned squabbling Democratic lawmakers that their “House and Senate majorities and my presidency” will be “determined” in large part “by what happens” to the latest version of his signature Build Back Better plan to combat climate change and expand the social safety net.

“I don’t think it’s hyperbole,” Biden said.

But according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll, the latest version of Build Back Better — a renegotiated $1.75 trillion compromise designed to win the votes of centrist Democrats such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Krysten Sinema — is significantly less popular than the original, $3.5 trillion proposal that preceded it. 

President Biden waits for his turn to speak during a visit to the Port of Baltimore on Wednesday.
President Biden waits his turn to speak, during a visit to the Port of Baltimore on Wednesday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

The survey of 1,673 U.S. adults, which was conducted from Nov. 4 to 8, found that a majority of Americans (51 percent) now disapprove of how Biden is handling his job — more than in any previous Yahoo News/YouGov poll. His approval rating is nine points lower than that (42 percent).

On several specific issues — including the economy (40 percent approve and 51 percent disapprove) and dealing with Congress (33 percent approve and 52 percent disapprove) — the president’s numbers are even worse, reflecting months of Congressional gridlock and a major inflation spike.

When asked who they’d rather see as the Democratic presidential nominee in 2024, more Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents now say “someone else” (41 percent) than say Biden (38 percent).

Meanwhile, approval of Congress as an institution is also at a low point for Biden's presidency: 15 percent approve to 61 percent disapprove.

To strengthen their standing ahead of next year’s midterms — an election in which the president’s party historically suffers sizable losses — Biden and the Democrats are hoping to pass BBB as soon as the week of Nov. 15, then spend the next year campaigning on its individual provisions, which polls have invariably shown to be popular with voters.

The problem is that as it gets whittled down, the package as a whole is becoming less popular with both Democrats and independents — that is, with the voters who will actually decide Biden’s fate. 

To gauge how Congressional compromises are affecting perceptions of Biden’s signature legislation, Yahoo News and YouGov asked two back-to-back questions:

  1. Congress has debated a $3.5 trillion plan that would do more to address climate change while also supporting working families with childcare subsidies, national paid family leave and universal pre-K. Do you favor or oppose this plan?

  2. The cost of this plan to do more to address climate change while also supporting working families has been cut to $1.75 trillion, and several provisions have been removed, including paid family leave and free community college. Do you favor or oppose this lower-cost plan?

Republicans, for their part, make no distinction between the two versions of BBB, both of which they reject. Less than a quarter (23 percent) say they favor the original $3.5 trillion plan; exactly the same number (23 percent) say they favor its half-price successor. By shaving $1.75 trillion off the price tag, Democrats gain precisely zero Republican support in the poll.

What they do instead, however, is start to discourage their own party. While a full 80 percent of Democrats say they favor the initial, $3.5 trillion iteration of BBB, just half as many (40 percent) say they feel the same about the latest $1.75 trillion version. Among 2020 Biden voters, support and opposition are now evenly split at 39 percent apiece for the slimmer package.

Even more striking is the sentiment among independents. Unlike Republicans, non-affiliated Americans favor a $3.5 trillion BBB 43 percent to 38 percent. They feel very differently, though, about Democrats’ new $1.75 trillion compromise, opposing it by a two-to-one margin (50 percent to 25 percent). That’s a staggering 20-point shift away from the shrinking legislation, on net. 

Biden supporters bearing banners that say
Biden supporters watch as the presidential motorcade arrives in Howell, Mich., on Oct. 5. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)

As a result of these huge swings among Democrats and independents, Build Back Better has been transformed from something favored by a wide plurality of Americans (49 percent to 32 percent) to something opposed by an equally wide plurality of Americans (28 percent to 45 percent).

Assuming the bill passes, this could make it a harder sell on the campaign trail over the next year, as Biden’s party seeks to motivate Democrats and persuade independents. (Similarly, support for Biden’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan — which passed Congress while the Yahoo News/YouGov poll was in the field — has fallen 8 points over the last month, to 51 percent, while opposition has climbed by the same amount, to 25 percent.)

To be sure, Build Back Better’s component parts remain far more popular than the complete package, with 77 percent of Americans in favor of “lowering the price of prescription drugs by allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies”; 60 percent in favor of “expanding subsidies for low- and middle-income Americans to buy health insurance”; 58 percent in favor of “providing universal preschool for all American children”; 58 percent in favor of “creating subsidies that would reduce the cost of child care for working parents”; and 55 percent in favor of “providing tax credits to businesses and utilities to produce more clean energy.”

Given that Republicans will have the power to let many of these policies lapse if they regain control of Congress in 2022, Democrats have already said that they plan to frame the midterms as a choice between keeping new benefits or losing them.

It’s not yet clear, however, whether Democrats will be able to gin up as much enthusiasm for BBB among their base voters as they hope. One of the most popular parts of the larger $3.5 trillion package — 76 percent of Americans favor it — was expanding Medicare coverage to include dental, vision and hearing. But now Democrats are planning to add only hearing, minus dental and vision, to Medicare’s menu of benefits.

Just 23 percent of Americans — including just 31 percent of Democrats and just 19 percent of independents — support this new, hearing-only compromise. Likewise, two other popular provisions — four weeks of paid leave for new parents (58 percent favor) and two years of free community college (54 percent favor) — are unlikely to make the cut. 

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., leaves the Senate Chamber with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., after a vote in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol Building on Nov. 3.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., leaves the Senate Chamber with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., after a vote in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol Building on Nov. 3. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

None which is to say Biden and the Democrats have better options going forward. Despite the fact that few 2020 Biden voters say they approve of how Sinema and Manchin are handling their jobs — just 11 percent and 13 percent, respectively — the president needs their votes to pass BBB. The $3.5 trillion plan, in other words, isn’t coming back.

At the same time, far more Biden voters (50 percent) say they disapprove of Congress because legislators “aren’t changing enough about America” than say they disapprove because legislators are “changing too much” (7 percent), and nearly a third of independents (31 percent) agree. So passing the $1.75 trillion plan is probably better for Democrats than passing nothing, at least in the near term.

It's also worth noting that the final legislation may prove more popular than it appears in this poll, where respondents were essentially asked to choose between more and less generous versions of it — a choice they won't have in real life. The bill will also change shape in the coming weeks as Democrats assemble a final package, meaning that it’s possible that some of its more popular planks could be added back or strengthened. Then there are variables that are simply unknowable, such as how robust the economy looks in the coming months. If BBB passes and Americans grow more confident about the economy, policies that earn only tepid support today could prove quite popular, especially if they help working Americans as promised.

Even so, Biden and congressional Democrats are facing substantial headwinds as 2022 approaches. A full 31 percent of Americans say the economy is their top issue when thinking about 2022, according to the Yahoo News/YouGov poll — more than twice the number who cite any other challenge. Other surveys have shown that nearly 6 in 10 Americans say Biden “hasn't paid enough attention” to the nation's most important problems. If BBB passes but the economy stagnates amid significant inflation, Republicans will likely blame Democrats’ big-spending proposals for Americans’ plight — and the package could become less popular than it is today.

On Wednesday, the president acknowledged that overall prices are now climbing at a faster rate (6.2 percent over the past 12 months) than at any point since 1990, saying in a statement that “reversing this trend is a top priority for me.”

It’s possible that passing BBB will help Democrats in 2022, even in its diminished state. But at this point, Biden’s ability to tackle other issues will probably matter more.

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The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,673 U.S. adults interviewed online from Nov. 4 to 8, 2021. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, as well as 2020 presidential vote (or non-vote), and voter registration status. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. adults. The margin of error is approximately 2.5 percent.

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