The Missing Link in Biden’s Political Messaging
Connect the economy at home with the rest of the world in a more convincing way
President Joe Biden traveled to Ohio this week to make the case directly to the American people for some of the things his administration is trying to get done.
This is the sort of trip outside of the Beltway bubble Biden needs to do more often if he wants to shore up his sagging political fortunes in advance of this fall's midterm elections. Sandwiched between last week’s trek to Europe and next week’s pilgrimage to the Middle East, what Biden said in Ohio had many of the ingredients needed to reconnect with working Americans – but there are still some elements missing he can add to make his case stronger.
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Biden remains stuck at a low point politically
Four months before the 2022 midterm elections, President Biden remains stuck at a low point in his political standing, with a job approval of 38%. Biden’s standing collapsed nearly a year ago last summer after the botched Afghanistan withdrawal and the wall his domestic policy agenda hit due to the usual Washington dysfunction and gridlock, divisions within his own party, and several unforced errors in how Biden and his team chose to traverse America’s rocky political landscape.
Biden’s political standing in his own party is so precarious right now that the grumbles and complaints within his own party are growing louder, with some starting to pull out their knives and look for alternatives, a dynamic that will accelerate among Democrats if they lose as big as many predict this fall.
Other voices on the left remain saddled with delusions of grandeur, their heads stuck up their own advocacy agendas as they deny the hard realities of the current political moment like how inflation in gas and food prices affect ordinary working Americans.
Taking it to the people
That’s why it was good thing that Biden ignored voices trying to pull him down political rabbit holes like left-wing identity politics and went to Ohio, a key swing state, to talk to working Americans.
Take a look at what he had to say there (oddly, this transcript is buried on the White House.gov website behind the main White House webpage with a mishmash of issues from reproductive rights to guns to infant formula that reflects the political messaging disarray currently afflicting Team Biden).
Some key things that Biden did in this event in Ohio that he should rinse and repeat in similar events around the country:
1. Speak directly to the concerns of working Americans. Biden visited a union training center and then spoke at a high school to ordinary Americans. He was introduced by the head of the Ironworkers Local 17 and talked about some practical issues affecting their lives. He reminded the audience why he ran for president:
“I campaigned to restore the backbone of this country — the middle class and unions — because I know this: The middle class built American unions, built the middle class today. I’m keeping the promise — one of the most significant achievement union workers and retirees have received in over 50 years. And that’s not hyperbole.
For years and years, union workers have been driving trucks from factories to stores, bagging your groceries, constructing the buildings, bridges, roads we need, and so much more. The ironworkers, bricklayers, carpenters, laborers, plumbers, truck drivers, musicians, I might add. Food workers and so much more.”
Biden spoke about the dignity of work and how that’s at the core of what makes America strong. The language he used – particularly connecting back to his own working class roots – is the sort of thing he needs to do more. Let Biden be Biden on this front.
2. Tout his accomplishments. A key facet of what Biden was communicating was linked to one of his big successes in his first year: the American Rescue Plan that helped jumpstart America’s economy after the forced shutdown during the pandemic in 2020. He talked about something important that he got done that connected with the lives of working Americans, ensuring that people who worked hard all of their lives would have a pension to live on in retirement.
It's frankly baffling that President Biden hasn’t done more of this, more than a year ago after passing the stimulus plan, John Halpin advised in these pages that Biden needed to explain to Americans how major government interventions help their lives and not repeat the mistake that President Obama made in his policy responses to the Great Recession when he entered office. And yet the Biden team repeated this mistake.
Biden’s appearance in Ohio yesterday is better late than never, but hopefully it’s not a little too little and a little too late.
3. Frame his opponents as a part of the problem. The third thing Biden did was speak in plain terms about how his political opponents are part of the problem and not part of the solution because of their obstructionism. This did give the Ohio event more of a campaign-style feel to it as reporters Matt Viser and Joanna Connors of The Washington Post noted, but that’s a necessary measure at this stage of the game after Biden’s political collapse over the past year.
Three missing links in Biden’s political message
Biden should do more of these events that come more directly into the lives of Americans, and even when he is jetting off to foreign destinations like the Middle East as he will do next week, he should look for ways to tell the American public why what he’s doing helps their lives.
Three missing links in Biden’s political message right now are:
1. Offer a clearer message on inflation and the economy overall. Though inflation appears to be leveling off in several key areas, Americans are still hurting from the recent price increases in gas and food. But job growth has so far remained strong and America’s economy overall has roared back to life after the worst of the pandemic. Economists’ predictions about what to expect next, however, are all over the map.
There’s no denying that inflation is hurting Americans – most Americans say that rising prices in the United States is a crisis. There are no simple solutions to this challenge because there’s only so much that government can do about rising prices – just ask veterans of the Carter administration.
But one thing’s for sure: the whole “Putin’s price hikes” schtick just isn’t cutting it. That Biden talking point – like most Team Biden talking points, only inconsistently and episodically put out (again, reflecting some major disarray in the communications efforts by this administration) – just isn’t convincing to Americans. Only 11 percent agree that Putin is to blame, and most Americans put the blame on Biden.
Energy security has reemerged as a key issue once again, and that offers a moment for a more realistic discussion about the global energy transition – something quite relevant to America’s relations with the Middle East, where Biden is headed next week.
2. Connect the measures he has taken with the broader revival of America’s economic fortunes. Biden should repeatedly explain how we got to where we are and then most importantly how his governing agenda moving forward will help advance the economic fortunes of all Americans.
Biden helped jumpstart America’s economy last year in the American Rescue Plan of the spring and the massive infrastructure investment of the fall (delayed in part by Biden’s own poor political choices and unforced errors) – but the overhaul of America’s economic engine that was supposed to come after the jumpstart hasn’t yet been realized.
3. Link the domestic agenda to America’s ability to compete in the world. A glaring gap in how Biden talked about his agenda in Ohio this week was the global context. Most Americans are receptive to arguments that frames U.S. government action in the economy in the context of global competition, and there is widespread concern about economic competitors like China.
Biden’s trips to Europe last month and the Middle East this month shouldn’t be just events his team keeps siloed from this domestic political agenda, Most Americans don’t see the artificial distinctions between domestic and foreign policy issues the way that many of our political and policy elites do.
The main reason why it’s important to link the argument between Biden’s domestic agenda and what he does overseas has to do with what’s happening here at home – Americans want to hear a more compelling story about what it is we’re doing in the world and how it will benefit their lives.
But there’s another key reason why it’s important for Biden to make this link between the domestic and international issues: America’s rivals and competitors in the world are always trying to undercut America’s sense of purpose and unity. A big part of the economic challenges America is facing at home are directly related to Russia’s war against Ukraine, and Russia’s long game appears to bank on weakening the political resolve of America and other free and democratic countries through sustained economic pain.
This link between the domestic and international set of issues on the economic front shows why a more inclusive nationalism and patriotism at home in America, one that seeks to build partnerships around the globe, is the best way out of our current predicament. Tribalism in U.S. foreign policy discussions not only confuses Americans at home, it’s also exploited by America’s adversaries and competitors in the world.
That’s why Biden should talk more about GOP obstructionism on measures that are aimed at boosting America’s competitive edge against China, just as he should ignore the isolationist voices on the left and the right calling for America to withdraw from the world without offering a clear alternative plan.
As Biden gets ready to head off to the Middle East and Americans head out on summer vacations, there’s a window for Biden to take what he did in talking to ordinary Americans in Ohio this week and add a few key missing ingredients to his political message.
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