It's the posturing, stupid

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- Jessica Coen, Recount Editor in Chief

138 days until Election Day.

Joe Biden needs Americans to feel good about the economy. His own party has some complaints.

Across the ideological spectrum, from sea to shining sea, Democrats are united in identifying a startlingly broad range of economic crises plaguing Americans: New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs are ringing the alarm about a “housing crisis.” Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock touts an “insulin desert crisis.” In Minnesota and Massachusetts, Senators Tina Smith and Elizabeth Warren both rail against a “childcare crisis.” California Congresswoman Barbara Lee identifies a “child poverty crisis.” In Vermont, Senator Bernie Sanders sees a “low-wage crisis,” a “retirement crisis,” and a “dental care crisis.” The Congressional Hispanic Caucus worries of a “growing student loan crisis” and the Congressional Black Caucus trumpets a “homelessness crisis.” Pennsylvania Congressman Chris Deluzio warns of “rampant inequality.” Connecticut Congresswoman Jahana Hayes argues that “insurance premiums continue to skyrocket.” Kansas Governor Laura Kelly laments the “the far-too-high cost of living.” Washington Senator Patty Murray decries the “sub-poverty wages” of those working the minimum wage. 

Amid that dismal picture, these Democrats are also united in another message: Re-elect Joe Biden. 

Simultaneously identifying a nation plagued by problems and pitching the incumbent president as part of their solution is not by any measure new. And an administration official argues that these grievances are “not inconsistent” with Biden’s narrative of economic strength, noting that the problems they allude to “predate the president.” But in an election that could well hinge on perceptions of the economy, elected Democrats’ often-dour public posture could represent a threat to a central task of the Biden campaign: redefining voters’ views on the issue. And that task is considerable.

A May survey from Pew Research Center found just 23% of Americans — and 37% of Democrats — viewing the economy as “good” or “excellent.” A Gallup poll the same month found just 38% of Americans have confidence in Biden’s economic stewardship, eight points lower than those who said the same of Trump. The most recent national polls from Fox News, ABC News, and NYT/Siena found Trump leading Biden on the issue by 13, 14, and 22 points, respectively. 

All found the issue to be at the top of voters’ minds, an understandable development after a four year stretch filled with infection, recession, and inflation. It’s also likely that the unusual nature of this November’s matchup — for only the second time in history, a sitting president is being pitted against the predecessor he defeated — has contributed to the salience of the issue. For the first time in over a century, Americans don’t need to imagine either of the major nominees in the White House. They can directly judge two four-year periods of economic management. 

Further complicating the picture is an ongoing, and by some measures widening, disconnect between traditional indicators of economic sentiment and Americans’ current attitudes. The president does indeed have much to boast about on the economy — as he’s fond of noting, the U.S. has had the strongest recovery of any developed country. Hiring has proved remarkably resilient in the face of elevated interest rates, the unemployment rate has been at or below 4% for two and a half years, the longest stretch in 50 years, and recent reports indicate that the inflation rate may be finally buckling under the weight of the Federal Reserve’s intervention. 

And yet, malaise persists — baffling even many traditional economic authorities. In September of last year, The Economist published a study showing that a decades-long correlation between economists’ prediction of Americans’ feelings of the economy and Americans’ actual reality had been severed by the pandemic. A study from the Financial Times in December found that, of the industrialized nations it surveyed, this phenomenon only existed in the United States. 

That sentiment gap may, in part, be explained by another dimension of complexity. The May Pew survey encapsulated a dynamic frustrating many Democrats: Even as a mere 23% of respondents felt positively about the national economy, 41% rated their personal financial situation positively. Asked about their expectations of the national economy a year from now, “worse” outpolled “better” by eight points; asked about their expectations of their personal finances a year from now, “better” outpolled “worse” by 18 points.

Various theories have been put forth on that disconnect — from media coverage to TikTok. But at times, that sense of contradiction has seemed to emanate from the White House itself, which has cycled through economic slogans at a clip roughly on par with Taylor Swift album drops. The president entered office rallying support for his economic agenda under the banner of “Build Back Better.” By 2022, that had given way to “Building a Better America.” In 2023, the White House began bracketing its efforts under “Bidenomics.” By this spring, that too had faded away

For its part, the Biden campaign argues there’s no daylight in the party’s messaging. Charles Lutvak, a Biden campaign spokesman, insists that “Democrats are united around an economic agenda of tackling corporate greed, putting the middle class first, and rejecting Trump’s inflation bomb.”

More than four months ahead of Election Day, there remains a great deal of runway to change Americans’ views of the economy. Many Democrats still speak with reverence for former President Bill Clinton’s September 2012 DNC speech, which operatives in both parties credit with having an almost immediate effect on voters’ views of Barack Obama’s economic record. But the opportunities for shifting the landscape become rarer as the campaign marches on. And as long as many Democrats remain among the fiercest critics of overarching economic woes, takeoff from that runway may prove difficult.

And it’s here that the asymmetry between the parties could prove crucial: During Trump’s presidency, virtually no figure of any stature was willing to break from the party narrative on the economy. Even Senator Mitt Romney, arguably Trump’s harshest intra-party critic, nestled praise for the Trump economy amid his denunciations of the former president’s character. 

By contrast, the Democratic Party has a wealth of voters and elected officials ready to express dissatisfaction with the economy even under a Democratic president. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, praised the “huge steps” that Biden and congressional Democrats have taken, saying they’ve created “millions of good-paying, union jobs and brought unemployment down to its lowest levels in decades.” At the same time, Jayapal also argued that “working Americans are struggling to put food on the table, pay their medical bills, or keep a roof over their heads.” That nuance is unremarkable on its face but notable in its lack of equivalence on the Republican side of the aisle. To use one example: In June of 2020, when the monthly jobs report confirmed an unemployment rate of 13.3% (more than three times its current level), Jayapal’s closest corollary on the Republican side, the chair of the House Freedom Caucus, released a statement dubbing it “incredible,” trumpeting the emerging “robust economic recovery,” and containing not even a wink at the ongoing suffering. 

In the view of some Democrats, that difference speaks to an intellectual health within their ranks, not to mention their voters’ far more diverse identities and media habits. To others, it’s a testament to their party’s capacity for self-sabotage — or, as one Democratic operative working in a swing state succinctly argued, “fucking stupid.” 

The reality is it may be both. Either way, it may not be ideal for winning.