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Updated Jun 29, 2023, 8:43am EDT
politics

Can the White House sell Bidenomics?

REUTERS/Leah Millis
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The News

Can Joe Biden transform his biggest political liability into an asset?

We may finally be about to find out, as the White House is suddenly beginning a promised “sprint” to sell voters on its economic record in the face of hellacious public disapproval numbers. On Wednesday, the president traveled to Chicago for an address where he cast his agenda as a successful effort to rescue the economy from lingering effects of the coronavirus crisis and rebuild the middle class.

“Guess what? Bidenomics is working,” he told a cheering crowd, ticking off stats on growth, new jobs, declining inflation, and factory construction. “I’m not here to declare victory on the economy,” he added later. “I’m here to say we have a plan that’s turning things around incredibly quickly.”

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At the moment, Americans largely appear to disagree. Just 30% of adults consider the economy “good,” compared to 45% who thought so in the summer of 2021, according to polling by the Associated Press and NORC. Though it has slowed significantly this year, inflation remains a top concern among both Republicans and Democrats, with 92% of adults telling Pew this month it was either a “very big” or “moderately big” problem, more than any other issue.

Biden’s team has downplayed the significance of those figures. “In the modern era, media polling analysis is just not as relevant anymore,” one of the president’s advisers told Semafor. “Case in point, our polling numbers were worse in early November than they are now, and Joe Biden had the best midterms of any president in the last 60 years after several straight months of doomsaying.”

Still, the White House is vowing a renewed push on economic messaging as it heads into campaign mode. On Monday, senior White House advisers Mike Donilon and Anita Dunn released a memo laying out the case for Biden’s policy successes, noting that, along with rock-bottom unemployment, the U.S. has recently enjoyed higher growth and lower inflation than other rich nations, is in the midst of a factory boom, and is seeing a major rise in job satisfaction, among other points.

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Meanwhile, officials are also set to travel across the country to tout new infrastructure projects and factories as part of the administration’s “Investing in America” tour, which on Monday saw Biden unveil plans to spend $40 billion improving high-speed internet. A spokesman for Biden’s campaign told Semafor it was now heavily booking ads focused on the economy across local, Hispanic, and national media, after announcing an initial six-figure ad-buy in Washington, D.C. and battleground states earlier this month.

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Jordan’s view

Insofar as voters’ frustrations with the Biden economy really are about pocketbook issues like the cost of gas and groceries, there’s really only so much that speeches and campaign ads can do to turn their opinions around.

But there are at least a few reasons to think that a basic communications effort might bear some fruit for the president.

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First, the White House does have a plausible case to make. The sizzling job market has pushed unemployment solidly below 4% and begun to ease Wall St. fears that the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes will trigger a recession. Inflation has been slowing, and economists see hints it could cool further, thanks to factors like falling rents. By international standards, the U.S. economy really does look strong. There’s still much to criticize — until recently, average wages weren’t keeping up with inflation — and many economists still expect a downturn this year or next. But at the moment, Biden can make a coherent argument that his policies have worked.

Second, voters aren’t just unhappy about the economy, according to polls. They’re unrelentingly gloomy about it in ways that suggest some basic facts simply aren’t breaking through in the news. Headlines about a potential recession appear to have convinced many voters that we’re already in one, while a March report by the Democratic research firm Navigator found that only 15% of independents knew that the U.S. added jobs last year (43% thought it had lost jobs, and 21% didn’t know).

“The level of ignorance voters have about what’s happening in the economy is the equivalent of asking people in 1946 who won World War II and people not knowing it was the allies,” said Simon Rosenberg, a longtime Democratic consultant who has written at length about the need for Democrats to lean into economic messaging.

Third, there’s a large gulf between how Americans feel about their personal finances and the wider economy — suggesting that pocketbook problems aren’t totally to blame for the nation’s mood. In its annual survey of economic well-being, the Federal Reserve found that 73% of Americans said they were “doing at least okay” financially in 2022, in line with the previous four years. But the share saying the national economy was good or excellent had collapsed to 18%, down from 50% in 2019.

Finally, there’s the ad gap. While Republicans covered the airwaves with $142 million worth of spots about inflation during last year’s midterms, “there hasn’t been anything with any kind of scale or consistency on our side,” said Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, co-founder of the Democratic consulting group Way to Win. Her organization helped spearhead a $20 million campaign promoting the White House’s record, but Democrats can now presumably expect many times that amount from the Biden campaign and its outside allies.

Running a few spots reminding voters about the unemployment rate probably won’t solve all of Biden’s problems. But it can’t hurt him to try.

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Room for Disagreement

Plenty of people, especially conservatives, think perception isn’t Biden’s problem when it comes to the economy. “As things stand now, we have low growth, low productivity, a really hot job market, really low wage-growth, and high, but declining inflation,” Don Schneider, the former chief economist for Paul Ryan’s House Ways and Means Committee told me. “The job market is the bright spot, but overall I think voters are rightly judging his record to be negative.”


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