The Economy, Biden's Approval, and How to Fight Back

An unhappy electorate is taking its anger out on the Democrats, but Republicans are quite vulnerable on the economy

There is no political saying more trite — or more accurate — than James Carville’s famous aphorism from the 1992 campaign “It’s the economy, stupid.” Electoral success and economic performance are intrinsically tied together. The party in power is usually rewarded for a strong economy and punished for a weak one.

Despite the pundit-driven talk about the political toxicity of the Affordable Care Act, the biggest reason Democrats lost 63 House seats in 2010 was persistent double-digit unemployment from the 2008 financial crisis. Voters were angry about the economy and took their anger out on President Obama and the Democrats. Same thing happened in 1994 when Democrats lost the House for the first time in a half-century. There is a school of thought suggesting Trump’s 2016 victory was driven by a mini-recession in manufacturing as much as it was by James Comey’s poor judgment.

With President Biden’s approval ratings hovering at an all-time low and Americans expressing growing concern about the economy, that dynamic is playing out again. 

Or is it?

Something different is happening in 2021. The economic and political pictures are more complicated than conventional wisdom suggests. Democrats cannot hold onto our narrow majorities if we don’t win the economic argument in 2022 (or the argument in Virginia in two weeks). And we can’t win that argument if we don’t understand the unique politics of the Pandemic Economy.

The Perils of Polling

Just a few months ago, President Biden’s approval rating was North of 50 percent, where it had been since he was sworn in. His honeymoon period lasted longer than many expected, and his popularity proved durable. All of that changed this summer. Biden’s approval rating started going down steadily and did not bounce back. As of Friday, Biden’s approval rating, according to the FiveThirtyEight tracker, was 43.7 percent approve and 50 percent disapprove. There is a full year until the midterms, but if Biden’s numbers look like this in the fall of 2022, Democrats are in real trouble.

Because the dip in Biden’s approval happened around the same time as a barrage of negative press coverage of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, many observers assumed Afghanistan was the reason. But that assessment seems to be a causation/correlation error. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich recently pointed out, Biden’s numbers started going down before the withdrawal and have not improved as Afghanistan faded from the news.

Over the same timeframe, the polling on the economy moved in a similarly negative direction. According to a recent Morning Consult/Politico poll, the number of voters who believe the economy will worsen in the next year shot up nine points since July.

Economic polling is often a proxy for partisanship. After Trump won in 2016, the online results on the state of the economy stayed stagnant, but there were dramatic shifts underneath the hood. Before the election, Democrats thought the economy was doing well, and Republicans thought the opposite. As soon as Trump was elected, that flipped. But recent polling shows growing concern across the political spectrum despite unified Democratic control of the government. Nearly a quarter of Democrats now believe that the economy will worsen in the next year. 

Is the Economy as Bad as People Think?

The concern for the economy continues to grow although, by most traditional measures, the economy is pretty good and getting better. As David Leonhardt wrote in the New York Times:

Even amid a global pandemic, most American households are doing better financially than they were in 2019… Today, the unemployment rate has fallen back below 5 percent. The value of homes — the largest asset for most families — has continued rising. The S&P 500 is more than 30 percent higher than it was before the pandemic. And the federal government, across both the Trump and Biden administrations, has pumped trillions of dollars into the economy, much of it through checks sent directly to people.

While far too many families were and will be left behind if the Democrats cannot pass Biden’s economic plan, the vast majority of Americans are better off than before the pandemic. According to most measures, things are headed in the right direction. As Seth Hanlon, a former economic advisor to President Obama, recently pointed out on Twitter, weekly unemployment claims have fallen 65 percent overall since Biden took office, and are almost back to pre-pandemic levels.

Every expert agrees the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan and efforts to control the pandemic and vaccinate Americans is largely responsible for this economic success. If the economy improved under President Biden AND he has done a good job, why are the American people in such a sour mood?

The first and most obvious reason is the Delta surge. Optimism about the end of the pandemic took a huge hit this summer. Public concern is receding as case rates go down and the vaccination rate goes up, but there is still a pandemic-related pall on the public mood.

It may be because the economy came back faster and stronger than many expected. This led to two related problems: supply chain bottlenecks and rising consumer prices. Most economic indicators like gross domestic product (GDP) and the unemployment rate are broad and hard to pinpoint but rising prices for food, gas and other household items are tangible.

A late September Pew Research poll found 93 percent of Americans were concerned about rising prices for food and consumer goods.

Look, I am no polling expert, but nine in ten voters concerned about something is a problem. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Republicans effectively convinced people Biden’s policies are responsible for increasing prices. In the Morning Consult/Politico poll, the surge of people blaming Biden’s policies is driven in large part by Independents -- the very group that has turned against Biden in recent months.

While economists differ on the duration of the price spike, some estimate that it could last well into next year as production is ramped up to meet increased demands.

How Do We Change Public Perception?

The Biden White House is already working its tail off to find substantive solutions to the problem. The president recently addressed the bottlenecks at the ports that are delaying the delivery of goods and increasing demand and prices.

The Biden Build Back Better plan is (slowly) working its way through Congress and will put more money in families’ pockets to help them deal with increasing costs. The economically driven decline in the president’s approval is not solely a communications problem. The decline is driven by the reality that Americans are faced with every time they go to the grocery store. Presidents have less control over the economy than the public assumes. Therefore, the bulk of the response will require a party-wide messaging effort. Here are some thoughts on how Democrats (and all of us) can win the messaging battle:

  1. It’s an Economic Plan, Stupid: At some point, Democrats lost control of the branding of Biden’s legislative agenda. The Biden White House called it the Build Back Better agenda, which is consistent with their highly effective campaign messaging. However, media outlets have not adopted that phrasing. They refer to it as a “social policy bill,” “social safety net legislation,” and “a liberal wish list.” These terms range from neutrally confusing to repellent in the eyes of voters. Everyone from elected Democrats to all of us needs to refer to it as the Biden Economic Plan and put it in the context of the current economic situation. Republicans argue that the Biden Economic Plan is the cause of inflation and other economic concerns. We must frame it as the SOLUTION to the problem.

  2. Pass the Biden Jobs Plan ASAFP: With all due respect to the legislative branch, close association with Congress is always bad for a president’s political standing. It’s a paradox. Getting stuff done is good politics, but the process of getting stuff done is bad politics. Reams of coverage on legislative impasses, horsetrading, and dissatisfied activists depresses Democratic voters and annoys Independents. What’s happening in Congress often feels detached from rising economic concerns. Passing this bill will change the narrative, give Democrats something specific to tout, and move the political conversation to more friendly terrain.

  3. Remind People Republicans Exist (and are bad): A person who woke up from a century-long coma and read the news would believe that the United States still had the same two-party system, but this is incorrect. Now, the two parties are progressives and moderates. The Republicans intentionally excluded themselves from the political narrative. The last thing the party of insurrectionists and corporate shills wants is to be at the front of mind when the public makes assessments about the current state of affairs. It’s worth noting that the public REALLY doesn’t like Republicans.

  4. The Obstructionist and Corporatist Who Dabbles in Insurrection: The folks at Navigator Research recently released an insightful deep dive into how people view Congressional Republicans. I encourage everyone to read the whole thing, but the TL;DR is that the public views Republicans as advocates for the wealthy and corporations, closely associated with Trump, and primarily concerned with blocking Biden’s agenda (which people like!). Democrats have the opportunity to frame the Republicans as the people blocking economic progress in order to help their rich friends.

None of this is easy and Democrats are facing huge headwinds from the economy and the media, but there are real opportunities to better reframe the economic debate and get back on the offense.