Many Independent voters question Biden's leadership amid COVID surge, legislative setbacks

Poll numbers show he risks losing support that helped him win the White House.

December 21, 2021, 4:18 PM

President Joe Biden is in peril of losing the broad coalition of voters he pulled together for his 2020 election, as independent voters continue to sour on how he's handled a range of domestic issues, with some of them questioning if he has the leadership skills to navigate a deadlocked Washington and politically fractured country.

Biden approaches a year in office with many campaign trail promises unfulfilled, facing a nation where the coronavirus pandemic he promised to contain still rages, while several legislative priories such as voting rights, police reform and sweeping economic change are held up in a fractured Senate -- most often by members of his own party, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. Beyond these challenges in Washington, Biden also faces an electorate of independents, some of whom are unhappy that the stark political divides still remain despite promises of unification.

While a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll finds that a slight majority (53%) of Americans approve of Biden's handling of the pandemic, independents are a touch more skeptical. Only a slimmer number -- 49% -- approve, indicating potential tensions between centrist Biden and independents. And their support across a range of critical issues is much lower, according to the data cross-tabulations. Biden now sees potentially worrying low marks from independents for the state of the economy (40%), taxes (38%), inflation (27%) and guns (25%).

The low ratings don't even account for the political fallout facing the White House following Manchin's bombshell announcement Sunday he would vote against Biden's "Build Back Better" bill.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden pauses as he speaks at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 11, 2021.
President Joe Biden pauses as he speaks at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 11, 2021.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

With an evenly split Senate, the White House has relied on the uncertain support of Manchin and Sinema to enact much of Biden's agenda -- even as it's attempted to circumvent party-line deadlocks through executive orders. White House press secretary Jen Psaki argued earlier in an emailed statement Monday, after Manchin's "no" on Build Back Better, that the administration has, in fact, been able to get much over the finish line.

"We are proud of what we have gotten done in 2021: the American Rescue Plan, the fastest decrease in unemployment in U.S. history, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, over 200 million Americans vaccinated, schools reopened, the fastest rollout of vaccines to children anywhere in the world, and historic appointments to the Federal judiciary," Psaki said. "But we will not relent in the fight to help Americans with their child care, health care, prescription drug costs, and elder care -- and to combat climate change. The fight for Build Back Better is too important to give up. We will find a way to move forward next year.

Biden had nearly a 10-point lead with independent voters in 2020, securing their support 52%-43% against then-President Donald Trump, according to Pew Research data. New lagging poll numbers among independents could poke a hole in the big-tent party pitch Biden made on the campaign trail, especially if Democrats hope to maintain their hold on either chamber of Congress come the midterm elections.

"Here and now I give you my word: If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. l'll be an ally of the light, not the darkness. Make no mistake, united we can and will overcome this season of darkness in America," Biden said in his August address to the Democratic National Committee.

In a series of follow-up interviews with ABC News, poll respondents who consider themselves independent voters explained why they're skeptical Biden can keep his promise to build coalitions.

Timothy Pinson, a former accountant in Dallas, told ABC News he voted for Trump in 2016, but after being overwhelmed by divisive politics, he voted for Biden in 2020.

"I kind of just wanted to go back to the old way of things, you know, the way a president should be, you know, having normal."

Pinson says while he appreciates Biden's rhetoric, he's still experiencing instability. Pinson, who is disabled, is about to receive the highest Social Security boost in four decades, a nearly 6% increase. However, amid high inflation rates, he says it's not enough, expressing frustration over how the administration has prioritized policy issues.

"More on the economy ... jobs ... getting people's lives back to normal. Then we can talk about the social programs," Pinson vents. "And as far as social programs, I don't understand why they have to lump them all in one big bill. Why can't they just do them one by one."

PHOTO: President Joe Biden signs the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, surrounded by lawmakers and members of his Cabinet, during a ceremony on the South Lawn at the White House on Nov. 15, 2021, in Washington.
President Joe Biden signs the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, surrounded by lawmakers and members of his Cabinet, during a ceremony on the South Lawn at the White House on Nov. 15, 2021, in Washington.
Kenny Holston/Getty Images

Similar frustrations about the Democrats' legislative agenda exist on Capitol Hill, where the reigning party faces log-jams from within its own ranks. Manchin killing any hope Biden could sign his $1.7 trillion social spending and climate policy package by the end of the year was just the latest in a series of frustrating setbacks as voting and gun rights legislation saw no feasible traction.

For Cincinnati-area software engineer Roger Bonnie, the deadlock in Washington is frustrating.

Bonnie, who feels "absolutely" let down by the White House he chose to support because of Biden's promises on voting rights, climate change, among other priorities, says the left "really hasn't shown any fight.

"The Republicans will burn down the country to get their way. The Democrats will say 'well, we can't do anything because of Manchin and Sinema,'" Bonnie explained.

But overall this group of independent poll respondents say their support hinges on a lot more than policy success alone. Frustration, it seems, also comes from what they see as Biden's inability to navigate an increasingly divided electorate.

"He doesn't take a stand for things, he's not a crusader. I think that hurts his ability to establish his message," said Bonnie, 56, who voted for Biden in the 2020 election and plans, begrudgingly, to support Biden if he runs in 2024, but, "that doesn't mean I'm the slightest bit happy about it."

Caitlyn Crelin, a registered Independent from Colorado Springs, shares similar sentiments. She voted for Biden in 2020 after facing backlash from peers for voting for a third-party candidate in 2016.

"I felt like I had to vote for Joe Biden or else Trump was going to be reelected," Crelin tells ABC News. "At this point, I would have been 100% happier with Trump."

Crelin says her breaking point came during the pandemic with lockdowns and mandates, saying she didn't feel congressional Democrats were accepting enough of Republican viewpoints.

PHOTO: A sign asks for proof of COVID-19 vaccination in Manhattan at the entrance to a museum on Nov. 29, 2021, in New York City.
A sign asks for proof of COVID-19 vaccination in Manhattan at the entrance to a museum on Nov. 29, 2021, in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

For voters like Crelin, heightened division in politics casts doubt on the future of American democracy.

"Start opening up more parties," Crelim said when asked what lawmakers can do to help preserve democratic principles. "Making this more of a democracy. Showing that they can do that and that we're all actually in this together."

In a November ABC News/Washington Post poll, 62% of Americans felt the Democratic Party was out of touch, 58% said the same about the Republican Party. Branded as the consoler in chief for his compassion, Biden faces extra -- somewhat self-imposed -- pressure to unite Americans.

Karen Thomas is a small business owner from Loveland, Colorado, who also voted for Biden in hopes he could usher in a less divided America. Although she holds Biden accountable, Thomas blames both parties for escalating tensions.

"I don't really think it matters anymore. Democrats or Republicans. It's not really about supporting us people in middle America," she said.

Thomas pointed to the pandemic response, saying lawmakers were removed from the effects restrictive policies and mandates had on small businesses. Now, as she prepares to cast her ballot in next year's midterms, empathy is what she wants most.

"They need to get to know us again," Thomas told ABC News. "They need to sit down with people who are living in the life that they're living in and try to understand what it's like for us to have them make rules that we have to live with."

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