Not long after the midterm elections, I had a conversation with a Democratic strategist who concluded that divided government would be helpful to President Biden’s re-election in 2024. Sure, the Biden administration would now face increased scrutiny from the GOP House, but it was just as likely that Republicans would overreach and allow their most outlandish members to dominate the process. Incoming Speaker Kevin McCarthy, with only a few votes to spare, would find himself held hostage by the conservative Freedom Caucus, forcing the House to take a bunch of votes that, while popular with the base, will be toxic with swing voters. With Democrats no longer in charge of all the levers of power in DC, Biden can use his bully pulpit to lay the blame for a dysfunctional and/or unresponsive Washington on “MAGA” Republicans. 

Moreover, the last two times a Democratic president faced a showdown with a new GOP majority, the GOP came out on the losing end. Voters laid the blame for the 21-day government shutdown in late 1995 and the battle over the debt ceiling in 2011 at the feet of the new GOP majority and not the Democratic president. 

But polling from NBC News suggests the public is much less willing to give the Democratic president the same benefit of the doubt that they gave Clinton in 1995 or Obama in 2011. 

By a significant margin, voters back then believed that the Democratic president would be much more “flexible” in dealing with the new GOP majority than the GOP Congress would be in their dealings with the first-term Democratic president. In other words, in a battle between the president and the GOP Congress, Americans expected the GOP to be more dug in and less willing to compromise. As such, it’s easy to understand why, when big showdowns like the debt ceiling and a government shutdown did happen, voters were quick to blame the GOP.

For example, at this point in 1995, as House Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years, 47 percent of Americans said they expected Republicans in Congress to be “too inflexible” in dealing with President Clinton. Just 17 percent felt the same about President Clinton’s relationship with the GOP Congress—a 30-point gap in Clinton’s favor. 

In early 2011, as the GOP was getting settled into their newly-won House majority, 55 percent of Americans said they thought Republicans would be “too inflexible” in dealing with President Obama, compared with 26 percent who felt Obama would be too rigid in his dealings with the new Congress—a 29-point gap in Obama’s favor.

Today, however, while voters still think Republicans are going to be more inflexible to compromise than a Democratic president, it’s by a much smaller margin than it was in 1995 or 2011. The January survey found that 54 percent expect Republicans to be “too inflexible” compared to 45 percent who thought Biden would be less willing to compromise with the GOP—a nine-point advantage for Biden. 

In other words, when/if push comes to shove between the GOP Congress and Biden, Americans are less inclined to side with the president than they were during the Obama and Clinton eras. Another way to say it is that Americans could be more evenly divided on the blame than they were in earlier eras.

Why the change? Independent voters are a big part of the story. Back in 2011 and 2014 (the 1995 crosstabs were not easily available), independent voters overwhelmingly expected the GOP Congress to be more inflexible than President Obama. Today, 57 percent of independents thought Republicans would be unwilling to compromise, compared with 53 percent who thought Biden would be too inflexible. 

One other interesting data point about public expectations of the relationship between a new congressional majority and a president from the other party comes from Pew Research. 

In surveys taken since 2011, they found that while most Americans want to see a divided government work together, that’s not what partisans want. That’s not a particularly surprising finding, but it helps to explain why brokering deals in a divided government has become all but impossible.

For example, according to the Pew survey out this week, 63 percent of voters think that GOP congressional leaders should “work with President Biden to accomplish things, even if it disappoints some GOP voters,” while 35 percent think that Republicans in Congress should “stand up to Biden on issues important to GOP voters, even if that means it’s harder to address critical problems.” 

Not surprisingly, Democrats are much more supportive of Republicans compromising with the president than Republicans are. Just 34 percent of Republicans want their congressional leaders to work with Biden, while another 64 percent want them to “stand up to Biden.” Among Democrats, 91 percent think Republicans should work closely with the president. 

This isn’t just an issue for GOP partisans, however. In January of 2019, just as Democrats took the majority in the House for the first time in eight years, only 26 percent of Democrats wanted to see Democratic leaders in Congress work closely with President Trump, while a whopping 70 percent said they’d rather see congressional leadership stand up to Trump. In 2011, 58 percent of Republicans wanted to see their leaders in Congress push back on President Obama, even as 61 percent of Americans said they wanted to see Congress work closely with Obama to “accomplish things.”

We live in a time of intense polarization, with both sides desperate to prevent the other team from making gains. At the same time, regardless of the election outcomes, no one thinks that America is winning. Voters are worried, uncertain and frustrated. Despite signs of a recovering economy, most Americans think the country is on the wrong track. The recent NBC survey found more than two-thirds using negative words or phrases to describe where they think the country is headed in the next year—the highest percent of negativity they’ve ever recorded. This is why neither side should feel confident that in a high-profile fight between the executive and legislative branches that their side will come out on top in the court of public opinion.  

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