Few political objectives are more important for President Biden than winning the economic debate in 2024. Democrats know that their chances of prevailing in the presidential election are severely diminished if the Republican nominee and the GOP are seen as more capable and trusted on this issue.
Over the past two weeks, Biden and members of his administration have begun a campaign to win that debate. The president recently delivered a major speech in Chicago about his economic plans and record. On Thursday, he was in South Carolina reinforcing the message that “Bidenomics” is working and will deliver more for the country and working people in the months and years ahead.
But he stopped short of suggesting all is well, an acknowledgment of the hill he has to climb. “I’m not here to declare victory on the economy. I’m here to say we have a plan that’s turning things around quickly, but we have a lot more work to do.”
The effort runs straight up against the reality that the president’s approval ratings on the economy are weak. In some polls, he is close to 2-to-1 negative in people’s perceptions of his leadership on the issue. Many Americans say they believe that President Donald Trump was a more effective steward of the economy than Biden is, despite the fact that the economy collapsed during Trump’s term in 2020 during the opening phase of the pandemic.
Friday’s jobs report provided more data for the debate. The economy added 209,000 jobs in June, the 30th consecutive month of employment growth. Unemployment ticked down to 3.6 percent. The number of jobs added was a bit below forecasts, suggesting that the economy is cooling, but strong enough to keep the Federal Reserve on track to raise interest rates again next month in its bid to reduce inflation further.
If the report pointed to the challenge for economic policymakers (continuing to ease inflation without tipping the economy into a recession), it also seemed to sum up the dilemma for the president: All sides found something to shore up their arguments.
The White House could cheer the continued strong job growth and the number of jobs created since Biden took office (more than 13 million). The president said Friday’s report was proof that “Bidenomics is working.”
Republicans found enough to criticize, arguing that the president’s policies created inflationary pressures that persist. “American families are worse off since Biden took office. That’s a recession for the middle class, and the result of Bidenomics,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement.
There may be little Biden can do to turn around his economic approval ratings. Even Democratic loyalists concede this will be a tough sell. Part of the reason those numbers look the way they do is that they are affected by the partisan divisions in the country. And part of it relates to assessments of strength of leadership; in general, Biden has not been judged to be a strong president.
Biden is working to change perceptions about what his program can and will deliver, to raise people’s optimism about the future of the economy.
Beyond the number of jobs created, he has focused on investments now in the pipeline, whether from the huge bipartisan infrastructure package, the semiconductor legislation approved a year ago or the hundreds of billions of dollars that will be pumped into projects, many of them climate initiatives, from the Inflation Reduction Act.
Other presidents have been buffeted by public concerns about their handling of the economy. George H.W. Bush lost his reelection bid in 1992 in part because many voters perceived him as out of touch domestically, an image that he unintentionally reinforced during the campaign. Barack Obama grappled with a slow recovery after the 2008 financial collapse that threatened his reelection. He overcame that less by defending his record and more by making sharp attacks on Republican nominee Mitt Romney as a tribune of the wealthy who was indifferent to working people.
This president is dealing with an economy that keeps producing jobs month after month, but also an economy with inflationary pressures mixed with fears of a recession that have kept people worried. It is those concerns that the current campaign is designed to address.
Biden once was reluctant to embrace the term “Bidenomics,” a label attached to his program by, among others, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which is no fan of his policies. Today, some Democrats regard it as a gift, a label that gives the president an easy way to brand his administration’s work, and Biden now fully embraces it.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said that, just as “Obamacare” was initially a pejorative that turned into a positive label for the Affordable Care Act, Bidenomics can become the same for this president — if he and his team remain focused on telling people what they have done.
The administration’s messaging on the economy has been called into question repeatedly, even by allies in the party. That’s in part because Biden is not always the best salesperson for his programs. But it also reflects the sour hangover in the public mood from the pandemic, a factor that affects more than economic attitudes.
Recent Democratic research found that swing voters still have trouble citing anything specific that Biden has accomplished. That’s a contrast to where things were when Obama was starting his reelection campaign. People remembered, for example, that Obama had saved the auto industry from collapse. Which is why what Biden has begun the past two weeks will need to continue, with growing intensity, into 2024.
One argument advanced by administration officials is that, compared with other major developed countries, the United States is doing better. The American economy recovered faster from the effects of the pandemic, and the inflation rate is lower than in most other major developed countries. But for typical Americans, what’s happening in other countries is much less relevant than how they perceive their own situations.
There are a few signs of improvement in the public’s assessment of economic conditions, though not enough for the Biden team to take much comfort. Consumer sentiment about current conditions, as measured by the University of Michigan, stood at 69 in June, up from 65 in May and 54 in June 2022. But it remains far below the longer-term average of 96 and well below 114 the index hit in January 2020, just before the pandemic.
The Gallup organization reports that economic confidence is now the highest it’s been since January 2022, but still in negative territory in assessments of whether things are getting worse or better. A late-June Fox News poll found that 76 percent rated the economy fair or poor, better than the 83 percent who said that in May though not materially different from the spring.
Lake said winning this debate will take repetition, delivery and sharpening arguments. “[Biden and his team] need to continue to draw contrasts and to pick a fight,” she said.
People are skeptical when politicians simply cite accomplishments. They remember more when those accomplishments are cast as part of a contrast: what Biden was for, and what his opponents were against. That’s one reason Biden speaks so frequently about lowering the cost of insulin. He took on the pharmaceutical industry and prevailed.
Nothing will happen quickly. Some Biden allies see the new campaign as an early step toward what will become an intensifying series of messages, backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising during the campaign year.
Biden’s goal is to raise public opinion of the direction of the economy by early next summer, when attitudes begin to lock in for the fall election. If Trump is the Republican nominee, Biden can least afford for more Americans to regard the former president as stronger on the economy. Other issues will shape voters’ attitudes and motivation, but there is no escape from the central role the economy is likely to play in how persuadable voters make their choice.