On the Economy, Biden Struggles to Convince Voters of His Success

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When a chant slamming President Biden spread from a NASCAR race to T-shirts and bumper stickers across red America two years ago, the White House pulled off perhaps its savviest messaging feat to date. Biden aides and allies repackaged the “Let’s Go Brandon” insult and morphed it into “Dark Brandon,” a celebratory meme casting Mr. Biden as some sort of omnipotent mastermind.

Now, the White House and the Biden campaign is several weeks into another appropriation play — but it isn’t going nearly as well. Aides in July announced that the president would run for re-election on the virtues of “Bidenomics,” proudly reclaiming the right’s derisive term for Mr. Biden’s economic policies.

The gambit does not appear to be working yet. Even as Mr. Biden presides over what is by all indicators a strong economy — one on track to dodge the recession many had feared — he is still struggling to convince most of the country of the strength of his economic stewardship. Wages are up, inflation has slowed, but credit to the president remains in short supply.

Polling last month from the Democratic organization Navigator found that 25 percent of Americans support Mr. Biden’s major actions, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, but still think the president is doing a poor job handling the economy. It’s a group that tends to be disproportionately younger than 40 and is more likely to be Black or Latino — voters critical to Democratic victories.

Bidenomics, Mr. Biden said, “is about investing in America and investing in Americans.”

The term Bidenomics emerged as a pejorative in conservative media and has been widely adopted by Mr. Biden’s rivals. “One of the most important issues of the campaign will be who can rescue our country from the burning wreckage of Bidenomics,” former President Donald J. Trump said in a recent video, “which shall henceforth be defined as inflation, taxation submission and failure.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida offered his definition at a recent campaign stop in Rock Rapids, Iowa. “Bidenomics is basically: You have a lower standard of living so he can pursue the left’s ideological agenda,” he said.

Behind the rhetoric, there is some debate over whether the economy will be the driving force it has been in past presidential elections. Some Democrats argue that their party’s resilience in last year’s midterm elections showed that the fight over abortion rights and Mr. Trump’s influence over Republicans can trounce more kitchen-table concerns.

The White House argues that Democrats’ strong showing last year is a sign the Mr. Biden’s electoral performance isn’t strictly tied to the economy.

Build Back Better, the mix of economic, climate and social policy that Mr. Biden ran on in 2020, was a bumper-sticker-length encapsulation of Mr. Biden’s ambitions as president. Significant elements became law, but the branding exercise failed, doomed in part by rising inflation.

Democrats rebranded their climate legislation as the Inflation Reduction Act, even though the bill had little to do with inflation. Even Mr. Biden recently said that he regretted the name, suggesting that it promised something the bill was not devised to deliver.

Though the rate of inflation has slowed, it remains the chief drag on Mr. Biden’s economic approval ratings, said Joanne Hsu, the director of Surveys of Consumers at the University of Michigan.

“We track people who have heard negative news about inflation,” Dr. Hsu said. “Over the past year, that number has been much higher than in the 1970s and ’80s, when inflation was so much worse.”

One theme of Mr. Biden’s aides, advisers and allies is to plead for time. The economy will get better, more people will hear and understand what Bidenomics means and credit will accrue to the president, they say.

“The public more and more is going to be seeing low unemployment and will continue to get more bullish on the economy,” said Representative Robert Garcia of California, a member of the Biden campaign’s national advisory board. “But I also understand it’s very hard for people now. We just can’t expect overnight for people to feel better about the economy.”

For most Americans, their views on the economy are directly tied to their partisan leanings — a phenomenon that is particularly acute for Republicans. In 2016, before Mr. Trump took office, just 18 percent of Republicans rated the economy excellent or good, according to a Pew Research survey. By February 2020, just before the pandemic shut down public life in America, 81 percent of Republicans said the economy was excellent or good.

An Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll last month found just 8 percent of Republicans, along with 65 percent of Democrats, approved of Mr. Biden’s handling of the economy.

Mr. Biden’s sympathizers say part of his problem on the economy is an unwillingness to promote its bright spots out of fear of seeming insensitive to Americans struggling with higher prices. Mr. Trump had no such restraint, describing the economy as the best in history and the envy of the world. Using “Bidenomics” as a framework lets the president take ownership of the economy, but it doesn’t exactly tell voters that the economy is great.

“Trump chose people who were probably less experienced in terms of making policy, but some of them are quite good about talking up the president,” said Ben Harris, a former top Treasury official in the Biden administration who played a leading role in outlining the Build Back Better agenda during the 2020 campaign. “Biden’s taken a more modest and humble approach, and there’s a chance that’s come back to haunt him.”

Jason Furman, who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration, said there was a regular debate in that White House about how much to sell the public on the idea that the economy was improving even if people didn’t feel in their own lives.

Now he said it was difficult for the Biden administration to take victory laps over slowing inflation because wages haven’t kept pace, leaving a typical worker about $2,000 behind compared with before the pandemic.

“The way to think about that is people were in an incredibly deep hole because of inflation and we’re still not all the way out of that hole,” Mr. Furman said. “The fact that you protected people in the bad times means the good times don’t feel as good.”

Nicholas Nehamas contributed reporting from Rock Rapids, Iowa.

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