The Trouble with “Bidenomics”
Voters aren't buying the administration's messaging. But staying silent on the economy may be even worse for Biden.
At a rally in June, President Biden launched a centerpiece of his re-election campaign—“Bidenomics”—although observers of the event could be forgiven for coming away less than fully edified. “I don’t know what the hell that is,” the president cheerfully said of his signature program, “but it’s working.”
What Biden likely had in mind were some very real, even dramatic, economic accomplishments under his watch. The national unemployment rate, which hit a high of 14.7% in April 2020, is now at or near record lows in half of all US states. There has been a significant decline overall in consumer prices over the past year, and wage growth is currently outpacing inflation.
These are figures that any president could be proud of, and running on a reduction in unemployment as well as a broader recovery from the pandemic would appear to be a winning formula. What’s more, when asked about the components of any one of Biden’s major economic initiatives, voters express their approval.
But at the moment, the Biden administration finds itself in a perplexing spot. A February Washington Post poll found that a clear majority of Americans did not think he had created new jobs, invested in roads and bridge repairs, or made electric vehicles more affordable—all things that, in fact, had occurred as a direct result of his agenda. Private White House polling yielded even more distressing results, with seven out of ten of those surveyed saying they didn’t think the economy was getting better, even after they were explicitly told, as part of the poll, that inflation had eased and unemployment sat near record lows.
There are two ways to understand this set of apparent contradictions. One is that, notwithstanding the very real economic gains under the Biden administration, the overall picture is more complicated than snapshot numbers of unemployment and consumer pricing would indicate. The other interpretation (which is what the Biden team has leaned towards) is that it’s basically a problem of messaging—and if the campaign doubles down on Biden’s economic accomplishments, it will eventually break through with key constituencies.
The issue in the economic picture is that, while overall consumer prices have dropped significantly since 2022, everyday costs like gas, groceries, and housing have not returned to their pre-pandemic levels. There are myriad reasons for this, many of which are out of Biden’s hands. Housing costs are high given an ongoing nationwide shortage of available homes. Costs of food and gas are high given supply-chain snarls from the pandemic as well as the reverberations of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Unfortunately for Biden, these are of course exactly the costs that are foremost on voters’ minds.
Meanwhile, the experience of the pandemic seems to have scarred voters. The Consumer Sentiment Index, which measures how confident Americans feel about the economy, found that economic optimism fell by a third from 2019 to 2022. Although it has rebounded slightly in the past year, optimism nonetheless remains at its lowest level since 2008, when the country was in the middle of the Great Recession.
Throughout his first term, Biden has dedicated much of his political capital to the economy. His first major policy was the American Rescue Plan, a massive stimulus package aimed at revitalizing the economy. He also signed a trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure package as well as a law designed to make the U.S. a leader in manufacturing semiconductor chips, which his administration estimates will create around 40,000 jobs. (This is exactly the sort of onshoring of manufacturing jobs that Trump made his signature campaign issue in 2016.) And Biden’s biggest legislative accomplishment may have been the Inflation Reduction Act, which, among other things, worked to cut healthcare costs and invest in clean energy.
The ongoing hope of the White House is that, sooner or later, voters’ perceptions must catch up with these achievements. In a memo released at the time of the “Bidenomics” roll-out, White House senior advisors Anita Dunn and Mike Donilon argued that it should be possible for voters to distinguish between Biden’s economic successes and the economic challenges that he has faced. “Better pay and other Biden Administration policies have helped put middle class Americans into stronger financial position than they were in pre-pandemic—despite the global challenge of Inflation,” they wrote.
But as voter perceptions of the economy indicate, that somewhat subtle argument does not appear to be resonating right now. Part of the problem may be that they have never really trusted Biden on the economy. In the 2020 election, voters who cited it as the top issue facing the nation overwhelmingly backed Trump over Biden, 81-17%. Biden ultimately won because a far greater share of voters that year cared about the pandemic, and they broke decisively for him. This time, though, Biden is the incumbent, and voters are naming the economy as their top issue. And as they assess Biden’s stewardship of it, they are unimpressed: a recent New York Times poll showed that voters trust Trump over Biden on the economy by a margin of 59–37%.
Those head-to-head numbers suggest that, almost no matter what Biden says about his economic accomplishments, voters so far aren’t buying it. What’s more, in touting economic accomplishments, Biden runs the risk of coming across as tone-deaf—of appearing to ignore voters’ very real concerns over the cost of everyday goods. And, according to a Politico report, even some of Biden’s closest allies are losing faith in the “Bidenomics” brand and are encouraging him to ditch it.
Still, the president cannot simply pivot away from the economy entirely. It is what voters care most about, so Biden has to continue to talk about what he’s done to bring down costs. In terms of messaging, he is fundamentally in a tough spot. He has invested a tremendous amount of political (as well as literal) capital into the economy. In the abstract, voters agree with his economic approach, whether that’s the 2021 stimulus or his investments in infrastructure. And one would expect the decline in unemployment rates, if nothing else, to eventually register with voters.
So far, though, it hasn’t happened. And, at the moment, Biden cuts a dispiriting figure. As he continues to tout his record on the economy—the normal task of an incumbent to explain their accomplishments in office—he runs into the skepticism of voters who simply don’t believe him. And if he avoids discussing the economy (focusing, for instance, entirely on abortion rights and MAGA), then he may appear to be shying away from the issue that voters have clearly identified as their priority. Ultimately, Biden is left hoping that voters’ perceptions of how he has handled the economy aren’t set in stone and that he can minimize his losses on this front by next November.
Michael Baharaeen is a DC-based political and election analyst. He is a native of Kansas City and writes the Checks and Balances newsletter on Substack.
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