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  • Sheri Rivlin Allan Rivlin

“Bidenomics” Could be the Economic Message to Reconnect with Base Democrats and Swing Moderates

The economy is very strong, but President Biden is getting little credit. Let’s start with some basic facts. Currently, the US economy is hot; tens of thousands of new jobs are being created each week; the unemployment rate at 3.4 percent in April and 3.6 percent in June is hovering near historical lows as inflation is trending lower falling to 3 to 4 percent depending on which measure is used after reaching 9 percent last summer. Businesses are building new factories and the deficit is declining. But voters are not feeling the improving economy, or rating Biden favorably for his handling of economics in opinion polls.

The latest survey by YouGov for the Economist magazine conducted in June finds just 26 percent giving the US economy a positive rating of “good” or “excellent,” while 71 percent say the economy is “fair” (31 percent) or “poor” (40 percent). The same poll pegs Biden’s overall job approval at 45 percent approving with 51 percent disapproving. Biden’s handling of the economy receives 43 percent approval with 49 percent disapproving. At the same time, President Joe Biden is tied with, and sometimes even trailing, former president Donald Trump in 2024 general election polls, even though Trump is facing multiple state and federal indictments and investigations.

This must change, and soon. The White House and the Biden/Harris 2024 campaign already know Biden must be meaningfully ahead of Trump in general election horserace polls by November 2023 (one year ahead of the 2024 election) to silence speculation about another Democratic alternative entering the field. Biden is not currently getting the levels of support he had on election day in 2020 in head-to-head polls of voters’ 2024 intentions against the same opponent, and he must work to exceed that level of support based on his strong record as president – and, of course, without direct reference to his opponent’s expanding criminal record.

To do this Biden has to reconnect with two distinct constituencies: 1) the Democratic base that worries that Biden is too old and may be insufficiently progressive, and 2) the middle of the electorate that finds many reasons to reject Donald Trump but worries that Biden is too old and may be too progressive. The Biden Harris team proved this is not an unsolvable problem when they won the 2020 election. The political logic of the Biden Harris appeal is that when American democracy is threatened by right wing extremism, the left plus the center must unite to beat the right. Biden can win back the support he needs by demonstrating bold and vigorous leadership on the economy, and in standing up to the Supreme Court and extremist conservative Republican culture warriors.

Biden is at his best when he is fighting, and the Supreme Court decisions, and over-reaching and out of the mainstream “Culture War” gives the White House a long list of battles to fight. Many of the issues are squarely in the wheelhouse of Vice President Kamala Harris, and as a lawyer and former California Attorney General, she is effective in making the case that these court rulings are taking away rights and freedoms from the American people. Additionally, she has strong bonds with the most aggrieved groups: women who are losing their reproductive rights, African Americans who are losing affirmative action and civil rights protections along with LGBTQ+ individuals, and those with crippling student loan debt.

Joe Biden must be out front in all of these battles, but his attention must stay on his fight to bring economic opportunity, better jobs, more businesses and more manufacturing to the parts of America that need it the most. The enemy is the extreme levels of inequality of wealth, income, opportunity, and political power that has defined the American economy for decades and continued to grow worse under former President Trump. The White House economic team understands this and has given the President an impressive record of legislative achievements, some passed with bipartisan support, and some passed by Democrats alone and opposed by Republicans, to get help to the middle class, and invest in the economic future of the middle of America.

If the specific investments in roads, ports, infrastructure, smart energy grids, broadband telecommunications, new technologies, education, and workforce job skills training are the first verse, and the economic statistics that show the investments are starting to pay benefits are the second verse of the Build Back Better economic program (aka “Bidenomics”), the chorus is a clear statement of who the economic program is intended to reach both economically and politically. The most repeated line in the roll-out of the 2024 economic message over the past few weeks is that it is a plan to “rebuild our economy from the middle out and the bottom up, not the top down” as contrasted with the trickle-down economics of the past.

The most natural instinct for any White House is to use the strong economic statistics to make the case that the economy is stronger today than the voters believe it is. It is important for the Biden economic team to avoid this trap that ensnared President Barack Obama and the Hillary Clinton Campaign in 2016. Their “keep good going” economic message attempted to reverse what they believed were voters’ overly pessimistic views of the economy. But the voters in the upper mid-west states were not wrong about their own economic experiences and too many rejected what they viewed as an overly optimistic assessment because they were not experiencing the recovery in their region and in their economic lives.

The aggregate national economic statistics capture averages and can fool us into believing the average American is feeling better about the economy, when as has been the case for decades, most of the economic gains are being captured by a small number Americans who have amassed great wealth while many other Americans have not been able to keep pace with the cost of living. Democrats believe the economy is improving because most of the growth has occurred in the blue states on the east and west coasts and especially in the surging cities where most Democrats live. But our persistent and deepening economic inequality and regional differences in economic growth mean the majority of Americans can be below average in their own economic circumstances and opportunities.

Instead of citing the low unemployment rate, and other statistics to prove voters are wrong to be so dour, Biden needs to listen to these voters to understand why they are giving these answers. Some of them may live in parts of our inner cities that have been economically depressed for decades. Some of these voters may live in small town America where factories are vacant, the local hospital has closed, and the only help wanted signs are for minimum wage, no future jobs in food service, retail, or at the Amazon warehouse. If you live in these communities you are not wrong to rate the economy negatively, and too many Americans agree that the economy is not providing the economic security and opportunity they believe they deserve. They will give the President more support if they believe he understands their concerns and economic frustrations than they will give him if Biden tries to convince them the economy is strong based on national statistics.

With the Federal Reserve raising interest rates to slow the over-heated economy, the political and economic press will be repeatedly asking the White House whether the nation is in a recession or not. The natural tendency will be to respond with positive economic statistics to argue that the economy is strong. A better answer would be to connect with the people who live in communities that feel they have been in a recession for years. The biggest problem facing the American economy is economic inequality and the differences in growth rates between regions. Too many Americans live in communities that have been in a recession since the factory closed whether that was 10, 20, or even 30 years ago. That’s why the Biden Administration has been working so hard to bring manufacturing back to this country, especially silicon chip manufacturing. That’s why there has been so much emphasis on infrastructure, rebuilding roads, bridges, and schools, helping community colleges and supporting job skills training, to create more opportunities for middle class Americans to get good jobs with a future and dignity. That’s Bidenomics, and if communicated with vision, strength, and vigor it may help Biden regain the full support of base Democrats and moderate swing voters.

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