The White House is shifting its economic argument to focus on Republicans as evidence mounts that its messaging on the politically tricky issue of inflation has fallen flat with most Americans.
Allies have advised the White House to accept that voters think the economy is getting worse, even if that is not the case, and to start pointing to Republican legislators as obstacles to actions Biden wants to take to lower costs for middle-class Americans.
Biden’s team has heeded those warnings, and aides say Cabinet officials, outside groups and Democratic lawmakers will be drawing a stronger contrast between Biden’s approach and the GOP’s proposed alternatives.
“If the Republican members of Congress want to have a debate about who is tackling price increases, we’re happy to have that conversation and make clear who is leading on tackling the price increases that are challenging families,” said Kate Berner, White House deputy communications director.
Berner described the messaging shift as a “new phase” in White House efforts to “communicate with the American people about who’s for cutting prices and who’s taking action and who’s not.” “You’ll hear it from the president as well, but the president also has a role to play to bring the country together, to take the temperature down and to not play political pundit, but instead be a leader,” she said.
The pivot follows a month of bruising polls for Biden. His approval rating has consistently been in the low 40s and Americans continue to express negative views about the economy. A recent NPR/Marist survey showed 52% of Americans disapproved of Biden’s approach to the issue, while 42% approved.
Veteran Democratic strategists say that public sentiment signals it is time for a messaging shift.
No matter how frequently Biden says that jobs are returning, wages are rising and supply chain crunches are easing, White House allies say those arguments may never persuade Americans with financial anxiety that an economic recovery is underway.
“There’s plenty of good news out there that you can message off, but the problem is that many people, for whatever reason, are not feeling it, and you have to acknowledge that,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who was a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The administration has to tailor its message in a way that appeals to people whose wages are not rising as quickly as the price of gasoline and groceries, said Paulette Aniskoff, a partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive and a director of the White House Office of Public Engagement under former President Barack Obama.
“Continue talking about the good you’re doing, but it’s also fair to pivot to say: are the Republicans offering you anything? Do you realize they are actively sabotaging progress on the economy and covid?” Aniskoff said in an email.
Democrats have told the Biden administration to make the point that while the president’s Build Back Better plan seeks to expand access to child care, kindergarten and paid leave, Republicans in Congress are standing in the way of tax increases on the wealthy that would pay for those benefits.
Broader than inflation
Joe Lockhart, who was White House press secretary under former President Bill Clinton, said that the White House must also do the difficult work of making an economic case that is broader than Biden’s efforts to address inflation.
“If the Republicans get to define what the economic issues are, and they define it as inflation, then you’ve already lost,” he said.
Republicans in Congress say Democratic spending – particularly the $1.9 trillion COVID-relief package that is now law – is responsible for inflation. They are attempting to stop Democrats from moving ahead with another roughly $2 trillion social spending and climate change bill that contains tax increases that would fund many of Biden’s domestic priorities.
National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Tom Emmer argues that when Americans went into the marketplace with pandemic assistance money from Biden’s legislation, it affected the supply chain and fueled inflation.
“They created this problem,” Emmer said. “The voters already know this, so they can compare and contrast all they want, because they’re going to be out of office, at least in the midterm elections. This is why the House will flip next November.” Congressional Republicans say they want to reverse drilling, mining and leasing restrictions put in place by the Biden administration, speed up the construction of oil and gas pipelines and reduce federal regulations on fossil fuel companies in order to ease inflation.
They also want to make permanent a tax break for businesses that was part of their 2017 tax legislation and is set to expire next year.
They say that allowing businesses to deduct the full cost of their capital improvements up front, rather than spreading it out over years, encourages companies to make more immediate investments that would help with job creation.
Biden says his administration’s environmental measures and efforts to combat climate change are not inflating gas prices and that his Build Back Better plan, which is being considered in Congress, will reduce taxes and costs for low- and middle-income families.
Polling shows that Biden is not winning the public opinion battle. In a late November survey for Morning Consult/Politico, 46% of registered voters said the president’s Build Back Better agenda would make inflation worse, while 23% said it would improve the situation.
Another 15% said it would have no impact.
“Their message hasn’t been working because, again, they don’t listen to the American voters,” Emmer said. “Their arrogance is going to be their undoing.” White House officials say Biden has been forthright about the challenges facing American families.
Although the president has stressed data that points to improving economic conditions, Berner said, “I don’t think that we are trying to tell people what they’re experiencing isn’t real.” “The president took aggressive action to put Americans back to work and make sure more Americans had money in their pockets so that they could gather with loved ones for the holiday season,” she said.
“But at the same time, we are tackling these price increases and pressures and we’re tackling the costs that families have struggled with for many years.”
With inflation likely to last well into 2022, the Biden administration has ramped up its efforts in recent weeks to bring costs down with longer hours at the nation’s busiest ports and releasing barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Biden has also asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate oil and gas companies for potential illegal conduct.
“Now my Republican friends are talking a lot about prices, but they’re lined up against my Build Back Better plan, which would go right at the problem for rising costs for families,” Biden said in a Wednesday speech. “Why is that? I don’t want to speculate on anyone’s motive. But it’s always easier to complain about a problem than to try to fix it. “
Rep. Jake Auchincloss, vice chair of the House Financial Services Committee, said that inflation is not a messaging problem, it’s an actual problem, and Democrats must continue to demonstrate they are trying to solve it.
The Democrat from Massachusetts, echoing the White House, said Republicans are wielding inflation to score political points, without putting forward their own ideas.
“We are going to be judged as the party in power, and I would hope Republicans would be judged, too, not about who has sharper talking points, but who is actually reducing inflation,” he said.