At the end of Biden’s first 100 days, one surprising finding an NBC News poll uncovered was that voters perceived Biden as being more moderate than Obama, despite the biggest domestic spending program in U.S. history. In addition, the 42% that view Biden as moderate would not only put him above Obama, every other newly elected President, including Bill Clinton — the previous leader in getting voters to see him as moderate — by 5 percentage points. In fact, while Biden has been more liberal than anyone anticipated (proposing nearly 6 trillion+ in new spending aimed at working class Americans), as voters get to know him, they tend to see him as more moderate than liberal than they did during the campaign.
The initial reaction would be to assume that this has something to do with race, which is definitely a factor, but not the only one. Biden is seen as more moderate than Bill Clinton was, and his Vice President is seen fairly moderate as well. In a Morning Consult poll, voters placed Harris just to Biden’s ideological left — and to the right of where voters placed Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. All this despite being a woman of color.
Another explanation would be the GOP’s successful branding of Obama as “radical”, the failed branding effort of Biden as a “puppet”, the avoidance by Biden to touching hot button cultural issues, and the unique historical prominence of AOC as liberal spokesperson who does make Biden look more “moderate”.
The GOP Branding of Obama
In assessing the role that race plays in this dynamic, we should look at how Obama’s race allowed the seemingly nonsensical GOP efforts to brand Obama not just a “radical”, but an “anti-colonialist radical” to damage Obama’s ideological reputation. This concerted attack allowed Republicans to not only play on fears of Obama’s ideology, but on his race and his foreign-born father — combining racism and xenophobia into one powerful cocktail. The seminal work of this genre was Dinesh D’Souza’s film 2016: Obama’s America which blended nearly every conspiracy theory possible to make the claim that Obama was a radical who wanted to destroy America:
D’Souza appeared on Glenn Beck to further promote his ideas, with the assistance of Beck’s numerous chalkboard charts. At the 6-minute mark D’Souza claims Obama is “a captive of the ideology of a Luo tribesman from the 1950s.”:
Highbrow birtherism: D'Souza links Obama policies to "the ideology of a Luo tribesman"
Dinesh D'Souza appeared on Fox News' Glenn Beck to discuss how his "anti-colonialist" theory explains the motivations…
Newt Gingrich picked up this line of attack in audio recorded by Politico:
Newt talks to reporters on Obama
Gingrich: Obama and "Kenyan anti-colonial behavior" -- Audio from Slate's Dave Weigel
Media Matters captured more audio of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh repeating these claims on their radio program:
These elaborate conspiracy theories only served to further the more standard “Obama is a radical” attack that were commonplace on the right as well:
The Failed Branding of Biden
The attacks on Obama clearly took their toll, but the GOP attempt to brand Biden as a “puppet” of the left clearly failed. From the outset, Biden’s long standing Senatorial reputation for being a bipartisan moderate (as well as being an old white guy) was an obstacle for the GOP — so they resorted to claiming he was a “puppet” with others pulling the strings. Trump did this throughout the 2020 campaign:
More recently Hannity and Marco Rubio pushed this line of thinking:
Marco Rubio Helps Hannity Peddle Conspiracy About Biden's Mental Fitness
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) essentially agreed on Tuesday evening with Fox News host Sean Hannity's baseless claims that…
This line of attack hasn’t seemed to hurt Biden at all. For one, it seems like the idea of someone who has watched Aladdin one too many times, with the radical left being the Jafar to Biden’s Sultan:
Secondly, it’s hard to argue that the best vaccine rollout in the world is being overseen by a senile old puppet.
Biden’s avoidance of cultural warfare
Another big part of Biden’s perceived “moderation” is that we view ideological extremism entirely in cultural terms. The words “radical socialist leftist” would probably conjure a lot of potential people, but it’s unlikely that someone like Pope Francis, who is definitely as far left on economic issues as Bernie Sanders, would be one of them. To this end, Biden has very clearly not picked cultural “hot button” issues like guns, which provokes moments like this from gun rights advocates:
Alex Jones: fierce gun advocate doubles as prolific conspiracy theorist
Those familiar with radio host Alex Jones were not surprised by his fiery performance Monday night on Piers Morgan…
Despite several high-profile mass shootings, gun control remains fully stalled in the Senate due to the filibuster, and Biden hasn’t pushed to end it. He has also stayed largely away from a public option on healthcare. The previous push on healthcare produced moments like this when President Obama addressed Congress:
In contrast, President Biden’s response from the opposition to his infrastructure plan was far more lethargic:
Sensing that Biden wasn’t going to give them anything to work with, the GOP has inundated viewers with a variety of hot button cultural issues ranging from Dr Seuss:
To Mr. Potato Head:
to transgender athletes:
to Meghan Markle:
To Snow White:
All of which has brought one response from Biden and his White House — silence.
The Prominence of AOC
Finally, there is the factor of AOC to consider. While other Democratic Presidents have had liberal critics — the late Sen. Paul Wellstone to Bill Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders to Barack Obama, none have ever been as high profile or as famous as AOC. AOC currently has 12.7 million Twitter followers, the most of any member of the House, and second only to Bernie Sanders, who ran for President twice, at 15 million (She has surpassed his Senate account, which has 12.1 Million followers). She is a figure who is nearly as famous as any politician in America not named Biden, Harris, or Trump. She has been parodied on shows such as “Space Force”:
and “The Boys”:
and impersonated on SNL:
She also has a starring role in conservative media, as this ad from 2019 attests:
You would have to go back to Sen. Ted Kennedy in the Carter administration to find an ideological opponent in the President’s own Party that was as famous as AOC is now. Most people may not have heard of most politicians, but they have heard of AOC — and they know she is definitely very liberal and at odds with Joe Biden.
While the GOP has balked at the cost of the Infrastructure plan, AOC told Rachel Maddow it should be bigger:
She worried about Biden Cabinet appointments being too conservative:
She singled out Deputy Chief of Staff Bruce Reed in particular:
She demanded Biden ‘Keep His Promise’ on the Green New Deal:
She pushed Biden ‘hard’ to cancel student loan debt:
And she criticized the conditions for migrant children in the strongest possible terms:
Of course, she has praised Biden for exceeding the expectations progressives had:
However, that hasn’t nullified the narrative that Biden is not AOC, and AOC isn’t Biden. Her criticism of the administration really doesn’t hurt the administration — in the end she will vote for Biden’s priorities because she wants people to have childcare and good roads. Contrary to the DC conventional wisdom, her criticism actually helps Biden stake out a more moderate position in American political life. While triangulation as practiced by Bill Clinton in the 90’s is a strategy of purposefully picking out fights with your party’s liberal base to appear more moderate — Biden hasn’t had to do that. AOC does it for him.