Messaging Economic Progress to an Angry Public

Here are five economic messaging lessons learned the hard way from the Obama Era.

I woke up the other morning, opened Twitter, and was transported back to 2009 when newly-elected Barack Obama was trying to sell the work he did to save a shitty economy. Back then, we relentlessly touted the support of Mark Zandi, an economist at Moody’s Analytics and a former advisor to John McCain’s presidential campaign, for Obama’s recovery act. The support of “John McCain’s chief economic advisor” became a seemingly bulletproof response to any criticism and a bipartisan validation of Obama’s policies.

Flash forward a dozen years and everyone in the White House — from the Chief of Staff on down — was tweeting a Mark Zandi analysis. The analysis stated Biden’s legislative agenda would not make inflation worse — rebutting a false Republican claim being amplified by a media that doesn’t understand inflation. This moment of messaging deja vu was a reminder that even in a different economy and an even more different media environment, there may be some lessons to learn from Team Obama’s success and failures in selling economic progress to a rightfully angry electorate

House passage of Biden’s Jobs and Climate plan raises the stakes. The economy is going to be the central issue in the 2022 campaign and how we talk about it is going to matter a lot.

Lesson #1: The Voter is Always Right

The Biden economy is narratively complicated. It made tremendous, historic progress faster than many expected. As Neil Irwin recently wrote in the New York Times:

Workers have seized the upper hand in the labor market, attaining the largest raises in decades and quitting their jobs at record rates. The unemployment rate is 4.6 percent and has been falling rapidly. Cumulatively, Americans are sitting on piles of cash; they have accumulated $2.3 trillion more in savings in the last 19 months than would have been expected in the prepandemic path. The median household’s checking account balance was 50 percent higher in July of this year than in 2019, according to the JPMorgan Chase Institute.

Yet, despite that success, the public is very, very unhappy because rising gas supply-chain shortages increased costs from pandemic-related inflation. According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll:

7 in 10 adults, including almost half of Democrats, believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction, as well as nearly 60 percent who view Biden's stewardship of the economy negatively just nine months into his presidency.

There is nothing more frustrating than not getting credit for economic progress. Political communicators love the idea that the public is simply missing sufficient information to understand the rightness of our positions. But here's where the problem lies: the voter is always right. If voters are angry about rising gas prices, unsatisfied with the stimulus check, or haven’t seen the general improvement of the economy, that is their right. Every poll and focus group shows the same results: the public’s assessment of the economy is entirely personal. I have never seen a politician succeed in convincing voters that the economy is improving. And I have seen many pay a price for trying. Meet the voters where they are. Address their concerns. Speak to their anger. Don’t dismiss it because macro-economic factors paint a different story.

Lesson #2: Nuance is Death, Counterfactuals are Worse

Back in 2009, Team Obama struggled to find the balance between projecting optimism, taking credit for real progress, and speaking to the visceral pain of the American people. We talked about “green shoots” in the economic landscape.

Eventually, we split the difference and began arguing about how much worse things could have been if Obama and the Democrats had not acted. Passing the recovery act, bailing out the auto industry, and other actions from President Obama prevented the economy from tumbling into a second Great Depression. This argument was factually true, substantively correct, yet politically unappealing.

“Imagine how much worse things could be” is not a desirable slogan. In our hyperactive, disaggregated media world, politicians need a simple story. Sometimes touting progress makes sense. Other times, we must speak to legitimate anger and pain. Trying to do both in equal measure never makes sense.

Lesson #3: Get Caught Trying

Barack Obama hit his political nadir in August 2011. A messy failed effort to strike a “Grand Bargain” with the Republicans was followed by the nation’s first credit downgrade and a month of exactly zero jobs created. The public fumed over the economy and directed this anger towards the president with little more than a year before reelection. While we hoped the economy would improve before the voters decided Obama’s fate, we knew we had few levers left to pull and even less control. As we charted out our political strategy, one specific metric in our internal polling focused on jobs. The public considered job creation the most important issue and believed Obama wasn’t sufficiently focused on the concern. With this strategy in mind, we decided to measure our success based on whether we could increase the number of people who believed Obama was focused on jobs. The goal was to get caught trying.

No one knows when the current surge in costs will subside, but there is a chance that every Democrat on the ballot will be navigating these treacherous waters well into 2022. Like in 2009, the party cannot control inflation, but they can focus on assuring the public they are focused on the issue of inflation. Politics is unique in that way. One can actually get points for trying. The voters want to know you are fighting for them. 

The Biden White House recently started framing most of its actions and agenda in response to inflation and high gas prices. Others in the party should follow their lead.

Lesson #4: Direct the Anger

This isn’t a positive statement about our country, but the long arc of American politics is largely focused on anger management. In tough times, Americans go looking for someone to blame for economic distress. Republicans succeed when that blame is directed downwards towards poor people, immigrants, and the unemployed. Think of Ronald Reagan’s demagoguery of “welfare queens” and Donald Trump’s attacks on immigrants. Democrats succeed when the public rightfully understands corporate greed and irresponsibility are to blame. A recent Navigator Research poll-tested various responses to the neverending barrage of inflation attacks from cynical Republicans. In a smart move, Republicans focus on an “economically persuadable” voter cohort, meaning people who support Biden’s economic agenda but disapprove of his handling of the economy. That universe of voters is open to the idea that corporate greed is responsible (in part) for the rise in costs.

This is an important insight because the public believes — according to nearly every poll — that the Republican Party sides with corporations over working and middle class people. If Democrats can convince the public that corporations are profiting at their expense, they might sell the idea that Republicans are an unacceptable alternative.

Lesson #5: Rope in the Republicans

As Democrats contemplate how to sell their voluminous, popular, and important legislative accomplishments, I hope they spend the same time and energy figuring out how to frame the Republican opposition. The media coverage has focused relentlessly on divisions within the Democratic Party and scaled down ambitions. Republicans laid back, hoping no one remembered them. The Republican Party is less popular than the Democratic Party. Their economic agenda of corporate tax cuts paid for by cutting Medicare and Social Security is an A+ answer to the question of “how does one lose an election?” The political media is not incentivized to focus their limited attention on the Republicans when the Democrats control all the levers of power. It is up to us all to rope them into the narrative. It is our job to explain why Republicans are opposing these popular common-sense policies. Barack Obama turned around his economic fortunes in 2011 when he framed the Republicans as fighting for corporations and the wealthy at a time when the public was focused on yawning inequality. Here’s one possible option for an updated version of that message:

Republicans are blocking bipartisan measures to lower your childcare, healthcare, and prescription drug costs because they refuse to ask a single corporation to pay a single penny more in taxes.

During the first few years of Barack Obama’s presidency, I learned many lessons about how to message the economy. Things are different now, but the core principles still apply. And to have any chance in 2022, every Democrat at every level must make a powerful, contrastive economic case. I hope this helps.