Dems pressure White House to change economic message

Dems pressure White House to change economic message

President Joe Biden placed a big bet that he could sell an improving economy under the banner of “Bidenomics.”

Three months later, some allied Democrats fear he’s made a serious misstep.

Several top Biden allies have privately raised concerns about the phrase to the White House, according to two people familiar with the backchanneling.

And Rep. Steven Horsford, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said in an interview this week that he’s warned the White House that the Bidenomics brand is built on shaky ground. He believes it advances a message that wrongly centers the conversation on the president and his electoral ambitions rather than the voters who stand to gain from the administration’s economic accomplishments.

“With all due respect to the president, to the White House, this is not so much about them as it is the people who are benefiting by the policies that they came out and demanded,” said Horsford (D-Nev.). “We have to do a better job framing this not so much for one person — for the office of the presidency — but for the people.”

Their worries are underscored by a slew of polling showing that the economic recovery the White House has sought to spotlight as a triumph is not making a dent in the public’s psyche. Most Americans are still skeptical the U.S. is in an upturn, let alone one resilient enough to last much longer. The rising cost of living remains a dominant theme in voters’ minds, crowding out major gains in jobs and wages. And so far, the Bidenomics drumbeat that began earlier this summer has yet to prove it can change their minds.

“At this point, Bidenomics doesn’t really have strong answers to people’s biggest worries,” said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. “There ought to be a lot of thinking in the White House now about changes in the way they present their case for the economic good that this administration has done.”

Inside the White House, aides have largely dismissed Democrats’ fears as premature and overblown, arguing it’s far too early to judge a messaging strategy designed to play out over the yearlong run-up to the 2024 election. They remain confident that, after winning the presidency and then defying predictions of a midterm wipeout, they have a better read on the national mood than their critics.

“Bidenomics is the president’s economic agenda and it is strongly supported by the American people,” said White House spokesperson Michael Kikukawa. “That work and our message build on what the midterms and recent special elections proved: Americans favor the president’s vision for growing the economy from the middle out and the bottom up over trickle-down MAGAnomics.”

Americans are just beginning to reap the rewards of Biden’s economic agenda, officials said. Consumer spending continues to rise, signaling greater confidence in the economy’s stability than people may be willing to admit.

Perhaps most crucially, Biden officials believe voters don’t yet see the issue as a choice between Biden’s economic vision and the policies of former President Donald Trump and his GOP allies. Sharpening that contrast will prove critical in changing Americans’ attitudes over the next several months, they said.

“Like they did in 2022, Americans will face a choice between MAGA Republicans whose agenda serves the rich and powerful, and Joe Biden, whose agenda serves the middle class,” said Biden campaign spokesperson Kevin Munoz, highlighting a pair of early ads that spotlight individual voters. “That strategy worked then, and it will again in 2024.”

The administration has increasingly leaned into that contrast in recent weeks, emphasizing GOP proposals to cut taxes for the wealthy and roll back popular drug pricing moves. Bidenomics, top aides believe, gives the president a shorthand for comparing his various achievements against Republicans’ unpopular policies.

“It’s important to have a unifying theme and a vision that we’re explaining and that all these policies fit within,” said one longtime Biden aide, waving off strategy concerns as “bedwetting and Monday morning quarterbacking” from nervous Democrats. “The president didn’t win in 2020 adjusting his concern every day to the latest concern on cable news.”

But the administration’s case for patience is no longer masking the angst within the party that Bidenomics as a brand is falling flat — and perhaps is a microcosm of larger obstacles facing the coming campaign. An administration with accomplishments to sell has struggled to do so. A president who wants more credit for his work may, Democrats worry, be alienating voters by appearing insulated from their real life struggles.

In more than a dozen interviews across the party, Democrats offered various defenses and diagnoses of the administration’s messaging strategy and what may need to change. But nearly all acknowledged that the Bidenomics messaging blitz has failed to brighten voters’ view of the economy to date. Some now bemoan that the White House has tied itself so closely to a future economic trajectory it can’t really affect and certainly can’t control.

“I’ve never understood why you would brand an economy in your name when the economy hasn’t fully recovered yet,” said Michael LaRosa, a former spokesperson for first lady Jill Biden. “People need to be able to see and feel an economy in their own personal bank accounts. And it doesn’t change no matter how loud you scream the economy is better.”

The White House’s inability to gain more credit has confounded many Democrats. They believe Biden’s ability to steer the nation out of the pandemic and into an era of wage gains and near-record-low unemployment should be paying major political dividends.

Instead, most polling still shows clear majorities remain unhappy with the overall state of the economy and inflation in particular. A recent NBC News poll found fewer than 4 in 10 approve of the president’s handling of the economy. And though 55 percent said they were satisfied with their own financial situation, that figure tied a record low for the poll question dating back to 1994.

“The place where economic confidence is faltering most is with the base of the Democratic Party — so it’s among young people, among African Americans and Latinos,” said Republican pollster Micah Roberts, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies who handled the economic questions in the bipartisan NBC poll. “There’s a disconnect between the two or three months of [the Bidenomics] campaign and what people are actually feeling.”

Interviews with a diverse group of striking autoworkers and other voters in the critical battleground state of Michigan this week highlighted Biden’s troubles: Many of them had voted for him in 2020 and appreciate that he joined the picket line Tuesday. But several were frustrated with his handling of high prices and other economic issues — and not yet sold on voting for him again next year.

Darnay Curry, a Black United Auto Workers member striking at a plant in Warren, Mich., said he isn’t sure whether he’d back Biden or Trump if the election is a rematch between them.

“Neither one has said anything that actually gets to me just yet,” said Curry, who said he cast a ballot for Biden in 2020.

Tone Woods, a Black building trades worker from Detroit, said he is also undecided after voting for Biden in 2020. He attended Trump’s speech Wednesday in the Detroit area.

“Gas is high. Inflation. So that’s why I’m stuck in the middle,” he said. He is considering Trump because “the economy was a little better when Trump was in office, to be honest with you.”

Faced with sentiments like these, some Biden allies have advocated for a more empathetic approach that scales back on boasting about accomplishments in favor of greater acknowledgment that rising prices remain a challenge. Even as inflation cools, the shock of higher prices for basic needs like groceries and housing still appears to outweigh improvements in the abundance of jobs in the eyes of voters.

Horsford, for one, has directly urged Biden’s inner circle to focus more on selling specific policy wins by highlighting the businesses and individuals better off because of them instead of touting a broader Bidenomics vision that he said simply “isn’t cutting through.”

Trying to package Biden’s range of accomplishments under one umbrella risks obscuring the individual policies that polls show are wildly popular, like capping insulin costs and boosting domestic manufacturing, he and others argue. It asks voters to buy into an overarching economic philosophy they may not be totally sold on, rather than focus on more concrete improvements in their communities.

And crucially, they worry that christening Biden’s legacy well before it’s finished is plain old risky.

“There’s a difference between the actual thing working and the message landing with people,” said Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.), who praised Biden’s recent focus on touting specific policies and values, such as visiting the UAW picket line and creating a new gun violence office, as encouraging signs the administration is honing its message.

“I’ve told this to the president and the administration, [and] the campaign: You’ve got to make people feel like they’re along for the battle, like they’re part of the battle.”

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Author: By Adam Cancryn and Holly Otterbein