May 30, 2024
Economy

Why Biden’s brags on the economy aren’t working


A defining feature of Joe Biden’s presidency has been a persistent disconnect between accomplishments and popularity. Biden has done many of the things voters sent him to Washington to do, yet his approval ratings are among the worst of any president seeking a second term.

There are a variety of explanations for why voters have soured on Biden, who beat Donald Trump by more than 7 million votes in the 2020 presidential election. But one that may be hardest for Biden to fix is that some key voters simply have no idea what Biden has done during his presidency.

Monthly focus groups conducted by public policy researcher Rich Thau show that some voters who switched from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020 — highly coveted “swing voters” — are surprisingly unaware of anything Biden has done as president.

“I cannot overstate how uninformed people are about what Biden has done in office,” Thau said on a recent webcast sponsored by Republican pollster Bruce Mehlman. “There’s been all this legislative activity in Washington since Biden became president, and it’s as though it never happened. To me, it’s stunning.”

In a close election, very small groups of swing voters in key states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Nevada could easily determine the outcome. That’s why Thau records online video sessions with small groups of voters who fit this profile, usually five to seven per session, in which he asks their views on a range of issues relevant to national elections.

President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting of his Competition Council to announce new actions to lower costs for families in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, March 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting of his Competition Council to announce new actions to lower costs for families in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, March 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting of his Competition Council to announce new actions to lower costs for families in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, March 5, 2024. (Andrew Harnik/AP Photo) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

In one mash-up, Thau asks how many of the participants are aware Congress passed a bipartisan infrastructure law in 2021. Answer: none.

Thau asks if anybody can name anything Biden has done to address climate change. Again, none are aware that Biden signed into law the largest set of green energy incentives in US history in 2022.

Thau asks if anybody can name a single piece of legislation Biden wants Congress to pass. Nobody can think of anything, even though Biden is practically begging Congress to pass immigration reform to fix the mess at the southwestern border, more aid for Ukraine, and a set of spending bills to keep the government running.

These voters aren’t fools paraded out for political elites to mock. Thau recruits people who consider voting a civic duty and put a lot of effort into deciding whom to back. They say they get their news from mainstream news networks such as NBC, ABC, NPR, and Yahoo, plus Google web searches and social media sites including TikTok and Facebook.

But whatever serious news they see isn’t getting through. “There’s a huge problem of underinformedness in my groups,” Thau said on the Mehlman webcast.

Focus groups aren’t the same as polls. They provide anecdotal snapshots of what people are thinking rather than quantitative data on the direction of public opinion. Yet Thau’s takeaways may help explain widespread gloom despite a sound economy and many actions Biden has taken that ought to be popular.

One recent poll found that a majority of Americans think the economy is in poor shape, even though growth is solid, unemployment is low, and the stock market is at record highs. Biden repeatedly brags about record job growth during his presidency, yet his approval rating is stuck below 40%.

The catch for Biden is that the one big economic problem — inflation — isn’t something people need to see in the news to understand. They see it every day in their grocery bills and rent checks and don’t need any politician to explain how it crushes their buying power.

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Inflation has dropped sharply from a high of 9% in June of 2022 to just 3.1% now. Most price hikes are still there, however; the rate of increases has merely slowed. It stands to reason that when people take an economic hit, they’re slow to believe the pain is over or forgive whomever they hold responsible.

As the 2024 presidential campaign heats up, Biden is hoping his efforts to forgive student debt, lower drug prices, boost domestic manufacturing, strengthen unions, provide more affordable housing, combat nuisance fees, and improve ordinary people’s lives in many other ways will outweigh the sting of inflation and turn voters back in his direction.

But he’s not breaking through, for reasons that aren’t completely clear. It could be that voters aren’t as engaged as they claim to be, or that social media fluff buries real news, or that ambient negativity creates the impression that everything is terrible.

Whatever the cause, Biden needs to find new ways to let voters know what he’s been doing for them. There is an upside for Biden: Swing voters are sick of Trump, too, and don’t relish a return to his crass, loudmouth style of governing. If Trump is too loud, however, Biden is too quiet or just speaking in venues where nobody is listening.

Rick Newman is a senior columnist for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @rickjnewman.

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