With the State of the Union right around the corner, and President Biden mired in his fifth straight month of abysmal job approval ratings, lots of Democrats are offering advice to help the president turn things around before the midterms.
Democrats like NDN's Simon Rosenberg urge the president to acknowledge the challenges the country has been through over the past couple of years and "to make the grit, resilience, ingenuity, can do spirit of the American people the hero our story in 2022."
But, Rosenberg also wants to see Democrats selling their successes. "As the incumbent party, Democrats will be judged this fall largely on whether voters think we've done a good job, that things are better. Things are better, and we should spend the next 10 months relentlessly making the case that they are."
In a slide deck released this week, the Democratic research organization, Navigator, made a similar argument. When voters are presented with the tangible economic gains made during the Biden era (such as "more than 6 million jobs created last year,"), the presentation shows, opinions about the state of the economy improve.
"The story Dems have to show is that the economy is back up off the mat," Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson (and adviser to Navigator Research) told me. "That doesn't mean everything is fixed or everything is better, but just that it's heading in the right direction. This can't be mission accomplished, but it does need to be mission underway."
But, former Obama White House senior advisor David Axelrod warns Biden not to overdo it on the happy talk. In a New York Times op-ed this week, Axelrod writes that "[Y]ou simply cannot jawbone Americans into believing that things are better than they feel." What Americans want to hear from the president, writes Axelrod, "is genuine understanding of what we have been through, together and a clear path forward — less about Mr. Biden's accomplishments than about the heroic, unsung sacrifices so many have made to see their families and communities through." That balancing act isn't easy, says Axelrod, but it is something that "should come naturally" to a president whose "great strength has been his preternatural empathy."
All of this advice is coming up on a pretty hard economic reality. Americans' views of the economy aren't likely to get better until they see that inflation improves. I've yet to sit in a focus group where the issue of the rising costs of groceries, rent or gas didn't come up. In fact, many of the participants can tell you, to the dollar, how much more they spent at the gas station or the grocery store this week than they did a year ago.
The Brooking's Institution Bill Galston pointed to a recent Economist/YouGov survey showing that inflation has become the dominant factor determining voters' view of the economy. Asked to identify the "best measure" of how the economy is doing, 52 percent pointed to the cost of goods and services, compared to 17 percent for unemployment and jobs and just 6 percent for the stock market. As such, writes Galston, while "the Biden administration wants Americans to focus on rapid job creation and the sharp decline in unemployment, it seems that the people are more likely to emphasize rising prices until the pace of inflation abates."
At the same time, there's evidence that despite the drop in his job approval ratings, Biden still gets credit for being, well, a likable guy. He has lost a lot of ground since 2021 on issues of competency, but his empathetic credibility is mostly intact.
In the most recent Quinnipiac poll, 34 percent said they liked Biden as a person and they liked his policies, while another 21 percent said they liked him personally but weren't always happy with his policies. In other words, 55 percent of Americans like Biden personally, even if just 34 percent like his policies too. In fact, according to the cross-tabs Quinnipiac ran for me, almost a third (27 percent) of those who said they disapproved of the job the president was doing said they liked him personally.
Compare that to Donald Trump, who was, not surprisingly, much less personally popular than Biden.
In April of 2017 (the only time Quinnipiac asked this question), just 36 percent said they liked Trump personally, with just 9 percent saying they liked him personally but disliked his policies and 27 percent liking his policies and him personally. Meanwhile, another 50 percent said they disliked Trump personally and disliked his policies. The "double dislike" for Trump was 13-points higher than it was for Biden (37 percent dislike Biden both personally and policy-wise).
At the end of the day, Trump's "nice guys finish last" persona earned him admiration from many in his base, but limited his appeal to swing voters.
Even so, many Democrats want to see Biden mimic at least one of Trump's traits; his relentless focus on selling himself, his brand, and his accomplishments. But Biden can't pull that off as well as Trump did. Before he ran for president, Trump had spent years building his brand as a successful business mogul. And, as Democrats learned the hard way in 2016, no amount of advertising about Trump's bankruptcies or questionable financial dealings was able to dislodge the perception of Trump's superior business acumen.
Instead of trying to imitate his predecessor's "salesman-in-chief" persona, Biden would be better off leaning into his brand of the authentic empath. Doing so isn't going to magically turn perceptions of the economy around. But, it will be a more believable and credible approach.
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