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Why Biden is lagging public opinion on marijuana policy

There is an understandable tendency to think of presidential actions in terms of how they will affect upcoming elections. But it’s worth taking a step back to consider what President Joe Biden’s decision on marijuana policy tells us about how democracy really works.

There is no automatic mechanism to convert public opinion into public policy. And even when opinion is reflected in politics, change tends to happen gradually. This is certainly the case with marijuana. Very marginal steps toward legalization have taken place state by state until national policy shifts — though Biden’s pardons for those convicted of possession are still a far cry from where the public stands on this issue. A poll reveals a solid 69% of Americans in favor of legalization.

Why does politics tend to lag behind public opinion? On the one hand, it usually takes organized groups, especially those aligned with political parties, to bring about meaningful change. But advocacy for marijuana liberalization has been led, in large part, by individuals.

Proponents of liberalization have won enough support from Democratic Party-aligned groups to include decriminalization and other measures on their 2020 agenda. Presidents and their parties tend to at least try to hold their campaign promises; that’s what Biden does. They often fail, as Biden did on the franchise, because they don’t have the votes in Congress or can’t get things done. But they usually try.

Biden is also moving with caution because presidential action carries real risks — for Biden, but also for the policy Democrats want. Presidential involvement on any issue tends to polarize public opinion. Democrats are already almost all in favor of legalization, there is nothing to gain from this side.

At the same time, Republican voters who currently support marijuana legalization may oppose it once it is identified with a Democratic president. Opposing the president is such a strong impetus that it has even led to a surprising amount of Republican support for Russia and opposition to Ukraine in the current dispute.

It’s also a tricky area to navigate for leading Republicans. Normally, it’s safe for them to just oppose anything Biden supports. But in this case, Biden is endorsing something already wildly popular, including among many Republican voters. As the midterms near, Republicans could see their vocal opposition to Biden in general undermined by voter support for Biden’s decision on marijuana.

The current situation is not unlike what happened with former President Barack Obama and marriage equality. Same-sex marriage rights were growing in popularity, particularly among Democrats, but Obama feared the political consequences of moving forward and also had less ability to effect policy change.

Marijuana is unlikely to make much of a difference midterm this fall. The issue unites Democrats (by an 86% to 7% margin in a recent poll by Civiqs, a public opinion firm) while splitting Republicans down the middle (45% to 43%), so there could be some room for Democrats to win some Republican votes. But there are only a limited number of people willing to cancel their scheduled vote at this point, and of those, only a very limited number tell pollsters that marijuana policy is a high priority.(1 )

It was smart of Biden to wait for public opinion rather than trying to direct it. The question now will be whether support for legal weed has grown strong enough that presidential involvement no longer matters. We will see.

More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Republicans have a lot to fear in November: Ramesh Ponnuru

We are witnessing the hollowing out of the Conservative Party: Adrian Wooldridge

Democrats try to persuade while Republicans try to mobilize: Julianna Goldman

(1) Political scientist Dave Karpf argues that the timing of Biden’s announcement maximized political impact, although the effect will likely still be small. This is probably true, although in tight elections even small changes can be significant.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion