President Joe Biden is asleep.
He has no choice but to talk about the economy in the first half of the mid-term elections; Given the 40-year high inflation and high gas prices, this is the issue that worries voters the most.
But in doing so, he invokes his and the Democrats’ biggest responsibility: that they haven’t fixed things already and that they’ve only gotten worse.
There is no territory Republicans would rather fight for as they hold a referendum on Biden’s presidency and try to inflict the traditional first-term curse on a new White House by winning the House and possibly the Senate.
Democrats had hoped the Supreme Court’s nationwide strike on abortion rights and former President Donald Trump’s reduced threat to democracy would reduce the GOP’s advantage on the economy by November. But recent polls suggest that while these issues concern millions of voters, their power as voters pales in comparison to the high cost of living.
Biden is responding to this challenge by trying to change perceptions about the state of the economy among Americans. He’s highlighting undeniable areas of economic progress and strength, and making the broader argument that policies on energy, drugs and infrastructure will, over time, lift American workers.
And he’s attacking the Republicans’ record on the economy — a fair point since the last two GOP presidents have presided over economic busts, leaving their Democratic successors to pick up the pieces.
“Democrats are building a better America for everyone, with an economy that grows from the bottom up and from the middle, where everyone does well,” Biden said in a speech on Monday.
“The Republicans are doubling down on their mega-MAGA, spillover economy that benefits the rich, they failed the country before and will fail it again if they win. Democrats are cutting your everyday costs like drugs, health care premiums, energy bills, and gas prices.”
Biden’s speech was notable not only for its content, but for its location. Rather than a large rally of Democratic supporters in a critical suburban neighborhood that could decide the election, he was attending the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington. His relatively sparse campaign travel schedule reflects the responsibilities of a president with underwater approval ratings during difficult economic times.
In January, Laura Godinez told CNN’s Maeve Reston that she thought she was financially better off under former President Donald Trump as she hauled groceries into a truck that cost $145 in fuel in Reno, Nevada.
Nine months of turbulent politics and unpredictable global events later, his words could still define the election. The perennial question of whether voters are better off than they were when he was in power is one that Biden is trying to address as he seeks to build a fairer economy.
But two new CNN/SSRS polls released Monday that showed close Senate races in the swing states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin rounded out the president’s challenge and detailed the dynamics of the midterm contest two weeks from Election Day.
Polls show that the economy is by far the most important issue for voters. In Wisconsin, 47 percent said the economy and inflation were the top issues when considering the vote. In Pennsylvania, the equivalent number was 44%. That’s more than double the number of voters (19%) who said abortion was a crucial concern in each state. Polls also suggest that Biden is an imperfect economic messenger. His approval rating is only 43% in Wisconsin and 45% in the Keystone State, below levels where he could be a real electoral asset.
There are also signs that the economy could hurt individual Democratic candidates. Wisconsin voters who say the economy is their top issue support Republican Sen. Ron Johnson 78 percent to 21 percent over Democratic Gov. Mandela Barnes. In Pennsylvania, Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz doubles Democratic Gov. John Fetterman’s support in a similar cohort, 64% to 32%.
However, the closeness of these races, which represent the Democrats’ best chance for a majority in the Senate, shows that other factors may be at play. Although the economy is a primary concern for voters, issues related to the quality of the candidates or the fact that the United States is a politically divided nation can also weigh on the outcome of the election. That should at least give the president hope.
But Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who lost to Biden in the last Democratic presidential primary, warned on Sunday that Democrats must attack the economy.
“I think what we need to do is contrast what is a strong pro-worker Democratic stance with the Republican corporate agenda,” Sanders told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”
“It is important to take the attack to the Republicans. What do they want to do besides complain?’ he said
Sanders had a point. The Republican message has been far more about highlighting the economic struggles of everyday Americans and Biden’s failings than presenting a policy-rich alternative. But that is also the luxury of being in the opposition. Biden has been playing the notes Sanders wants to hear for the past few weeks. And central to the 2020 campaign was a vision of an economy that favors working Americans over the wealthy.
After two years, his closing economic argument may not have turned the tide of the campaign in the final days, but if it holds, it could slow Republican momentum in recent polls.
However, Biden faces an uphill task as he is forced to defend his record without crushing Trump in the polls, even if many of his GOP candidates are supported.
While voters tend to give presidents too much blame for economic woes and too much credit for booms, Biden is the one in the Oval Office, so the buck stops with him.
And when voters have seen prices for staples like eggs, meat and milk rise over the past year and spent months filling their wallets with cars, it’s hard to sway their attention to a more theoretical economic argument.
The President will be correct that the success of lawmakers in Congress in lowering the price of some prescription drugs for seniors, building a clean energy economy and creating more manufacturing jobs will create greater long-term prosperity. But the long-term benefits aren’t felt as immediately as sticker shock at the grocery store. Whenever a president is making an argument about the economy that involves painting a rosier picture than what people perceive of his own life, he’s in trouble. And while Biden often highlights the historically low unemployment rate, inflation is outpacing Americans’ sense of security about the job market. And it cancels out the impact of low wage growth.
Biden also has a credibility gap. For months, the White House told Americans that inflation was a temporary phenomenon and was “transient” after the pandemic. Now, voters have the right to ask why the White House and the Federal Reserve downplayed the threat. Post-mortems of the pandemic recovery will examine whether Biden’s massive social and infrastructure spending plans and the Federal Reserve’s policies created a situation in which too much money was chasing too few goods in the economy at a time of supply chain contraction and either initiated or significantly exacerbated it. inflationary crisis
The claim by Biden and the Democrats that the entire developed world is struggling with rising inflation and that the US is doing better than others could be true. But that’s not much consolation to an American driver struggling to fill his gas tank.
The same dynamic played out when the president referred to rising gasoline costs as “Putin’s price gouging.” Pointing out that the war in Ukraine was the fault of high oil prices or blasting Middle Eastern producers for pumping more crude allows the President to talk about a problem he has little control over. But it has not significantly eased the burden on consumers.
Some strategists also wonder if the president made a mistake by taking a big plunge in gas prices over the summer, when, along with the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion and a good run in Congress, Democratic fortunes soared for a few months. When prices rose again, the president was on the defensive, even though the national price per liter was about 10 cents cheaper than a week ago.
The president is also resorting to scare tactics, warning that a new Republican Congress would demand deep cuts to social programs in exchange for raising the federal debt ceiling in a fiscal projection that will take place in the first year of the new Congress.
“Republicans are determined to hold the economy hostage, or deliver the demands on Social Security and Medicare that millions of Americans trust and pay for … or Republicans will destroy the economy,” Biden said Monday.
The president compared deficit reduction to Trump’s, and criticized the former president’s $2 trillion tax cut, which mostly benefited the wealthy and corporations.
Again, these arguments are usually logical and rooted. And it may resonate more in a better economic environment. But high gas and food prices are so visceral that they create an emotional response among voters struggling to make ends meet. If Republicans win the House and Senate next month, that will likely be the reason.