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Biden's Theory of the Case on the Economy
The president's economic ideas aren’t resonating with anxious voters. The administration needs a better through line that is pro-worker, pro-family, pro-America.
Examining post-election data in more detail, it is clear Americans remain pessimistic about the overall state of the economy and are anxious about their own financial ability to handle high living costs. Despite better-than-expected midterms for President Biden and congressional Democrats, the president and his party cannot afford to be held in low regard by voters on the economy ahead of a critical national election in 2024.
Fifty-three percent of Americans in the latest CNN/SSRS poll believe that the economy is still in a downturn and that economic conditions are continuing to worsen. In contrast, 3 in 10 people feel conditions have stabilized while less than one fifth of Americans believe that the economy is starting to recover. Concern about the current cost of living is “near universal” according to CNN analysts Jennifer Agiesta and Ariel Edwards-Levy. More than 9 in 10 Americans express concern about the current cost of living, including 63 percent who express very serious concerns about living costs. The impact of inflation is felt most acutely among those with the fewest financial resources to deal with high living expenses: for example, two thirds of Republicans with less than $50,000 in household income say their financial situation has worsened over the last year as do nearly half of Democrats (45 percent) in a similar financial position.
Given ongoing anxiety and pessimism among voters, President Biden continues to receive poor marks from Americans for his handling of the economy. The president’s overall job approval remains net negative—46 percent approve and 54 percent disapprove—representing a slight increase in positive ratings since October. However, Americans still rate President Biden’s handling of the economy worse than they do his overall job performance: only 36 percent of Americans approve of Biden on the economy and a scant one-third approve of his handling of inflation.
These poor opinions exist before any potential recession hits or other “hard landing” scenario from the fight against inflation occurs that might negatively affect voters in the upcoming year. President Biden and Democrats will need to improve their standing on the single most important issue priority for Americans if they want to hold the presidency in 2024 and potentially make inroads in several tough House and Senate races next cycle.
Without offering much of anything in terms of a policy agenda in 2022, Republicans outperformed Democrats among those midterm voters who were most anxious and concerned about the economy. Looking at the massive NORC election survey conducted for Fox News and the Associated Press, Republicans handily won the one third of voters in 2022 who said they are “falling behind” financially, 63 percent to 33 percent.
Likewise, Republicans won voters at nearly all income levels (except the lowest income group) including narrow majorities of both lower- and middle-income voters, those people with annual household earnings between $25,000 and $75,000.
Although the national economy continues to do well in terms of employment and other statistics, Americans themselves are not feeling chipper and do not give the Biden administration much, if any, credit for its policies.
The partisan battle for the hearts and minds of working-class America continues.
So, what do President Biden and Democrats need to do to break through on the economy?
(1) For starters, they need a more concrete and honest rationale for why they did what they did in pursuing the American Rescue Plan, the infrastructure and domestic manufacturing bills, and the poorly labeled Inflation Reduction Act (which few Americans believe was designed to address their primary concerns about high costs for food, energy, and other household items).
The basic story in many voters’ minds is that Democrats spent a boatload of money and that all American families got in return was 40-year high inflation and rising energy bills.
Rather than act defensive about this narrative, or try to browbeat voters with a hundred different items in legislation no one pays attention to, Democrats should instead offer Americans a concise and serious through line to describe their motivations and actions centered on three steps:
Step One. We focused first and foremost on recovering from the pandemic, putting people back to work and reopening businesses.
Step Two. Now, as more people are working, we are focused on reducing inflation that came in the wake of these recovery efforts and the reopening of the economy. We are doing this by building better American-led supply chains and by directly helping families more easily afford health care, education, and other basic living needs.
Step Three. We're laying the ground for rebuilding the economy better than it was before—for everyone in all parts of the country—by investing in American businesses, technology, and infrastructure and by creating good jobs that keep workers and their families financially strong.
America is the best country in the world and we aim to keep it that way.
(2) Democrats need sharp and credible dividing lines with the other side. Republicans will attack them relentlessly on the economy over the next two years. Building off this basic theory of the case, the contrast with congressional Republicans on the economy is implicit: they opposed recovery efforts that helped put America back on track; they offer few if any ideas for fighting inflation beyond helping the rich and cutting support for families; and they talk a big game about American economic independence but then oppose steps to bolster domestic manufacturing and create good jobs for workers through sound government investments and partnerships.
(3) Finally, if Biden and Democrats want any hope of improving their relationship to voters on the economy, they need to place their larger theory of the case, their party contrasts, and their specific proposals under an easy-to-understand and communicate brand: an economic agenda that is "pro-worker, pro-family, pro-America."
Any contentious policies, such as Democrats’ energy plans, need to be explained within a framework of good jobs and economic security for workers and more opportunities for American businesses. Divisive cultural framings such as “climate justice” or other ideological goals should be discarded in favor of a more unifying and patriotic economic case that will appeal to workers across the country.
Message discipline is paramount. People don’t remember policies. But they do remember leaders who genuinely empathize with their economic anxieties and stand up for the country when times are tough.
Breaking through on the economy is a tall order for any politician these days.
But President Biden and Democrats could improve their odds by dropping the wonky policy discourse and legislative acronyms, and letting people know they’re fighting for their interests through steady, mainstream steps to help American businesses compete in the world and improve working conditions and family life for all Americans here at home.