Young voters are Biden’s canaries in the coal mine

When it comes to age and politics, the dynamic is familiar to even the most casual observer: Republicans tend to be older, while Democrats depend on a younger crowd. It may be a slight oversimplification but the caricature of US politics as a showdown between conservative boomers and millennial left-wingers is generally borne out by the numbers.

That’s what makes a recent YouGov/Economist study so interesting. According to the survey, Joe Biden’s collapse in approval ratings has been especially acute among American adults under the age of thirty. The Economist analysis finds that an average of just 29 percent of that cohort approve of the job that the president is doing, while 50 percent disapprove. That gives Biden a net approval rating of -21 among the under-thirties, the worst of any age group. Among the over-sixty-fives, for example, Biden’s approval rating is just five points underwater. Not so long ago, the gap was the other way around, with Biden doing better among young voters than he did among older groups.

Does this mean that young Americans are on a rapid rightwards journey? Have the zoomers and millennials all taken the redpill and started chanting “Let’s Go Brandon?” The Economist suspects not. The cohort remains heavily Democratic and its top policy priorities are healthcare and climate change. In other words, much of the dissatisfaction captured by the survey is a criticism from the left: college graduates who believed Biden’s promise to cancel student debt, young liberals convinced Biden isn’t doing enough on climate change. Meanwhile, big-ticket items in the (stalled) Build Back Better package such as the SALT deduction measure focus on affluent, older Americans.

I don’t want to oversimplify things, especially given some of the interesting ways in which rising zoomer and millennial factions on the right share part of the left’s critique of the Democratic establishment. The gerontocracy led by Biden in the White House and Nancy Pelosi on the Hill can look like the last gasps of an exhausted ancien régime whether you’re a paid-up DSA activist or a proud member of the so-called new right.

But Biden’s poor approval ratings among younger voters points to a structural problem for Democrats that can get lost in the focus on the president’s missteps in office: it is far from clear that, absent the threat of Donald Trump, the Democratic coalition has enough common ground to bind it together. Indeed, the fact that Biden appears is leaving young progressives dissatisfied even as he is governing further to the left of where he campaigned last year only underscores the point. And jagging further to the left would hardly solve the president’s problems.

Politics is always a mixture of the contingent and the structural, the actions of protagonists and the demographic, political and cultural waves those protagonists are surfing. While much of Biden’s poor approval ratings can be put down to his own actions, the task of persuading 79 million voters to back him a second time was always going to be a tall order assuming he doesn’t get to run against Donald Trump again.

You don’t need to dive into the polling numbers to understand this dynamic. Just look at the mood among Democrats on the Hill, where the party is divided, perhaps irreconcilably, over a reconciliation bill and relations between its various factions are only growing more frustrated with one another.

Given that Biden ran a pared-back campaign, focusing first and foremost on his unpopular opponent and the pandemic, he must, on some level, understand this problem. He triumphed in the primary because he was the best of a bad bunch when it came to being able to hold together a broad coalition. And that is what he just about managed in 2020. If the souring of young voters on the president is anything to go by, he — or whoever runs for the Democrats in 2024 — will struggle to pull off the same feat again.

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Harris promises she isn’t thinking about 2024

Speaking of the next election, Kamala Harris has said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that she has not spoken to the president about whether he will run for a second term. “I’m not going to talk about our conversations,” said Harris, “but I will tell you this without any ambiguity: We do not talk about nor have we talked about reelection, because we haven’t completed our first year and we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”

The Journal’s Tarini Parti asked Harris if she assumed Biden would run again. “I’ll be very honest: I don’t think about it, nor have we talked about it,” she replied.

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Does the world need a Bill Clinton Masterclass?

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What you should be reading today

David R. Garrow: How black was the Obama presidency?
Matt Purple: The war on Christmas comes home
Grayson Quay: Can protectionism bring back my father’s world?
Natalie Allison and Burgess Everett, Politico: GOP blows off Trump’s bid to oust McConnell
Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt, New York Times: How Ashley Biden’s diary made its way to Project Veritas
Louis Menand, New Yorker: What’s so great about great books courses?

Poll watch

President Biden Job Approval
Approve: 44 percent
Disapprove: 50.5 percent
Net approval: -6.5 (RCP Average)

How voters think 2021 compared to 2020
Better: 34 percent
About the same: 34 percent
Worse: 29 percent (Echelon Insights)

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