There’s 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 move on marijuana policy tells us about how democracy actually works.

There is no automatic mechanism for converting public opinion into public policy. And even when opinion is reflected in policy, change tends to occur incrementally. That’s certainly been the case for marijuana. Very marginal steps toward legalization took place state-by-state working up to national policy change — although Biden’s pardons of people convicted of possession still falls far short of where the public is on this issue. One survey finds a solid 69% of Americans in favor of legalization.

Why does policy tend to lag behind public opinion? For one, it usually takes organized groups, especially those aligned with political parties, to bring about significant change. But advocacy for marijuana liberalization has been driven, by and large, by individuals.

Proponents of liberalization won enough support from groups aligned with the Democratic Party that decriminalization and other steps were included in their 2020 platform. Presidents and their parties tend to at least try to keep their campaign promises; that’s what Biden is doing. They often fall short, as Biden has done on voting rights, because they don’t have the votes in Congress or otherwise can’t make things happen. But they do usually try.

Biden also is moving cautiously because presidential action entails real risks — for Biden, but also for the policy Democrats want. Presidential involvement on any issue tends to polarize public opinion. Since Democrats are already almost all in favor of legalization, there is nothing to be gained on that side.

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


This is also a tricky area to navigate for prominent Republicans. Normally, it’s safe for them to simply oppose whatever Biden supports. But in this case Biden is endorsing something already very popular, including among many Republican voters. As the midterms approach, Republicans could find their vocal opposition to Biden in general undermined by voter support for Biden’s move on marijuana.

The current situation isn’t unlike what happened with former President Barack Obama and marriage equality. The right to same-sex marriage was gaining in popularity, especially among Democrats, yet Obama feared the political consequences of moving ahead, and also had less ability to effect policy change.

It’s doubtful that marijuana will make much difference in this fall’s midterms. The issue unites Democrats (by a margin of 86% to 7% in a recent poll conducted by Civiqs, a public opinion firm) while splitting Republicans down the middle (45% to 43%), so there might be some room for Democrats to grab some Republican votes. But there are only so many people open to flipping their planned vote at this point, and of those only a very limited number tell pollsters that marijuana policy is a high priority.

It was smart of Biden to wait for public opinion, rather than to try to lead it. The question now will be whether support for legal weed has become strong enough that presidential involvement will no longer matter. We’ll see.

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

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