President Joe Biden often explains his simple theory of winning elections with his dad’s fabled kitchen table wisdom: “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.”
But his big speech in Chicago on Wednesday – dedicated to enshrining “Bidenomics” as a credible idea in the public mind – implicitly recognized that comparisons to the “alternative” in November 2024 (quite possibly Donald Trump) may not be enough to win reelection.
In 2020, Biden won the White House by promising a return to normality after a pandemic that delivered punishing economic blows. He had the advantage of running against an incumbent already bearing the shame of one of his two impeachments, who kept the nation in a constant state of psychological angst with his Twitter feed, and whose musings over injecting disinfectant as a cure for Covid-19 reflected his botching of the worst public health emergency in a century.
But that return to normality Biden vowed to deliver has been elusive amid an economy that remains challenging for many Americans.
If Biden faces Trump next year in an electoral rematch, some of the internal logic of the last race still could apply. Trump has alienated moderate, suburban, swing voters in the past, and there are few signs the twice-indicted former president has tried to moderate his brashness to appeal to them going forward. So not being the “alternative” might work for Biden one last time.
But just as Trump was judged on his tenure in 2020, Biden must sell his own record four years later – a factor that helps explain why he is trying to improve perceptions of his handling of the economy.
And given the still finely balanced electoral map and Biden’s low approval ratings, it’s not hard to see how a few damaging events – perhaps including an economic downtown – could be disastrous for him. Biden won on achingly narrow victories in key swing states like Georgia, Wisconsin and Arizona, and it would not take that many votes to switch in that trio of states for Biden to lose.
While a measure of normal life has returned, months of sky-high inflation (which is now tumbling) exacerbated a sense among many Americans of perpetual economic crisis. Many citizens are experiencing a pandemic hangover – from children facing the after-effects of lockdowns to adults whose jobs in city center shops and restaurants have disappeared as the work-from-home culture lingers. And beyond economics, a rose-tinted “normality” may never come back in a nation rocked by political and cultural clashes – especially when an ex-president who incited an insurrection is the front-runner for the GOP nomination, falsely arguing he was cheated out of power last time.
Biden admitted as much, in a speech last September, accusing MAGA Republicans of seeking to destroy the soul of the nation.
“Too much of what is happening today in our country is not normal,” Biden said.
If Trump is not the GOP nominee – depriving Biden of the comparison with an extreme, wannabe autocrat – the president’s campaign has even more of an imperative to change poor public perceptions of his handling of the economy. Multiple polls show that the public rates Biden poorly in an area that is usually critical for a president’s reelection hopes. A CNN/SSRS survey in April, for example, found 62% of Americans disapprove of how Biden has handled helping the middle class. Only 3 in 10 Americans thought the economy was in good shape.
This pessimism prevails despite the economy’s impressive churning out of jobs and extraordinary resilience in staving off predictions of a downturn. Months of high inflation – partly brought on by supply chain crunches coming out of the pandemic and high gasoline prices – created enduring gloom. These conditions were visceral for many families. It didn’t help Biden that his administration initially declared inflation “transitory.” In some senses, officials were right – the rate of increase in the cost of living is now about half of what it once was. But the White House came across as indifferent and Biden paid a political price. Republicans, meanwhile, won back the House, in part, by arguing that Biden’s big-spending pandemic rescue, infrastructure law and other measures overheated the economy.
So what exactly is “Bidenomics” and could what is essentially a branding exercise – to tie together the threads of Biden’s domestic agenda and convince Americans he’s far more successful than they thought – actually boost the president’s political fortunes?
To be fair, Biden has been talking about how to grow the middle class for his own half century in top-level politics. It forms an essential part of his identity, right down to his frequent description of his blue-collar upbringing and his idealization of the idea that often appears out of step with the modern market economy – that if Americans work hard they can get a fair shake to stay ahead.
He told a story on Wednesday about how he once stood at a Tibetan plateau with now Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who asked him to define America in one word. Biden answered, “possibilities.” In the president’s view, those possibilities have been lost for many Americans.
He argued that “trickle-down” economics – the Republican-backed theory of cutting taxes for the wealthy and corporations to initiate a flow of job creation and prosperity downwards – doesn’t work and has simply created more inequality and enriched the already wealthy.
Biden touted his program, including the first bipartisan infrastructure law in decades, another igniting the US semi-conductor industry to take on China, investments in new forms of non-carbon energy and a bid to use government power to lower the costs of health care and child care and to revive industrial research and investment to spike a hi-tech manufacturing rebound.
“Here’s the simple truth about trickle-down economics – it didn’t represent the best of American capitalism, let alone America,” Biden said in Chicago. “It represented a moment where we walked away and how this country was built, how this city was built. Bidenomics is about the future.”
There is some irony to the oldest US president in history, who is asking voters to give him a second term that would begin when he is 82, talking about the future. But creating a sense of optimism about the future after hard times is a staple of reelection efforts. It was fundamental to President Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign in 1984, for instance. Biden’s economic reelection messaging appears to have more in common with a more recent equivalent – the 2012 campaign, when President Barack Obama successfully blasted Republican nominee and venture capitalist Mitt Romney as an avatar of an economy biased toward the rich that hollowed out the working and middle class. Like his ticket mate that year, Biden is in the difficult position of claiming credit for areas of a recovering economy – in his case low unemployment – at a time when many Americans feel things are in terrible shape.
Trump is already seeking to capitalize on Biden’s rough approval ratings on the economy, even though the former president’s one major legislative achievement in his first term – tax reform – was a huge giveaway to the rich and corporations.
“‘Bidenomics’ is high taxes, crippling regulations, crushing inflation, (a) war on American energy, soaring energy costs, job killing globalist intentional agreements like the Paris Climate Accord, and total economic surrender to China and other foreign countries,” the Trump campaign said in a statement on Wednesday. “America First economics vs. America Last.”
Whether the new Bidenomics mantra will take hold and turn around Biden’s ratings on the economy is hard to judge right now. Given the multiple factors that weigh on economic performance, presidents don’t get too much credit for booms and often get too much blame for recessions anyway. And it’s all a little disingenuous. Biden, for instance, wants the credit for a low unemployment rate but not the blame for high inflation – both of which are brewed from the same economic conditions.
It has long been accepted political wisdom that presidents’ fortunes are dictated more than anything by the economy. But even Biden’s big achievements, like the infrastructure bill, may not deliver immediately tangible successes – at least not before the 2024 election.
Biden, as he did in his midterm pitch, is certain to center much of his reelection bid on the idea that Trump is again threatening American democracy. But with his Bidenomics bet he is also adopting a conventional political approach against Trump, who is flooding the zone with a new kind of politics brimming with retribution, lies, conspiracy theories and culture war.
Americans will decide in November 2024 whether Bill Clinton’s 1992 election creed – “it’s the economy, stupid” – still applies in a wilder, more volatile political age.