Biden Needs to Stop Boasting About the Economy

Biden Needs to Stop Boasting About the Economy

Biden Needs to Stop Boasting About the Economy

Pollster Stanley Greenberg is the Cassandra warning of Democratic Party complacency.


As polls tighten on the midterms, seasoned pollster Stanley Greenberg has emerged as the Cassandra warning Democrats that they need to push economic populism or risk being turfed out of the House and Senate by an angry electorate. Greenberg, who was a close adviser to Bill Clinton early in his presidency, is not alone in making this argument. He’s echoing the polemics of left-wing figures like Senator Bernie Sanders and journalist David Sirota (a onetime Sanders adviser). But Greenberg, with his impeccable mainstream credentials, is more likely to be listened to by party elites that habitually ignore the criticisms of Sanders or Sirota.

Greenberg’s analysis is best understood as a dissent from the party orthodoxy on the election. This orthodoxy was compactly expressed in a tweet by Democratic strategist Greg Pinelo:

This election is no longer about persuasion. It’s about the composition of the electorate. If there is a Kansas effect (doesn’t have to as huge), Dems will shock the world. If turnout of women is within historical norms and white women vote GOP at typical rates, we lose.

Pinelo’s brisk statement deserves to be unpacked, with its underlying assumptions made explicit. What he is saying is that there is no significant body of conflicted swing voters (for example, voters who might be pro-choice but who are also worried about inflation, so responsive to Republican messaging), or voters who might prioritize the economy as their major concern and who will be attracted to the GOP by default (since the Democrats are offering a weak status quo message on the economy). By Pinelo’s logic, this will be an abortion election, with Democrats succeeding or failing depending on the priority voters give to that issue.

Some analysts go further, warning that even talking about the economy is risky. Writing in The Guardian, political scientist Cas Mudde, of DePauw University, asserted, “Democrats are right not to focus on the economy.”

The vast majority of Americans say they personally feel the pain of inflation and believe that the US economy is getting worse, not better. But running on the economy will make these feelings even more salient, while centering Joe Biden, whose approval ratings are near their lowest level during his presidency, and the Republican party, which is still more trusted on the economy than the Democratic party.

Abortion, especially after Dobbs eviscerated the constitutional right to reproductive autonomy, is of course a dominant issue in 2022. To the extent that Democrats have overperformed in special elections, and remain remarkably competitive in polls (doing far better than the party that holds the White House usually does in midterm years), it’s because tens of millions of Americans do regard this as a make-or-break issue.

But elections are rarely about one issue. The dominant issue isn’t the same as the only issue. A successful political coalition usually consists of voting blocs with a variety of concerns. There’s mixed news on the economy. As Mudde admitted, most voters are worried about the state of the economy. While it’s true that job growth remains strong, concerns about inflation and diminishing real wages are persistent and widespread.

Given this rocky and worrisome economy, it’s a major political mistake to not offer voters a positive program that answers their anxieties. Instead, the Democratic Party has settled on a message celebrating Joe Biden’s past achievements—which, though genuine, don’t assuage worries about the future. Speaking to a press gaggle in Portland on October 15, Biden said, “Our economy is strong as hell—the internals of it. Inflation is worldwide. It’s worse off everywhere else than it is in the United States.” He added, “So the problem is the lack of economic growth and sound policy in other countries, not so much ours.… it’s worldwide inflation, and it’s consequential.”

Speaking to Politico, Greenberg issued a stinging rebuke to this kind of boasting. “It’s our worst performing message,” Greenberg said. “I’ve tested it. I did Biden’s exact words, his exact speech. And that’s the test where we lost all of our leads.… It said to the voters that this election is about my accomplishments as a leader and not about the challenges you’re experiencing.” Greenberg added that the GOP is “hitting us on crime and border and inflation…. That has huge power. And we have the self-satisfied message of how much we’ve accomplished rather than being focused on what is happening to people.”

On October 21 in The American Prospect, Greenberg posted a memo he wrote in collaboration with veteran Democratic strategists Patrick Gaspard, Celinda Lake, and Mike Lux. The memo reiterated the point that the Democrats can’t coast just on anger over the Dobbs decision but need to consolidate their support with a strong closing message on the economy. The analysts offered a three-point message.

The most important message was the first one: “Wealthy corporations with monopoly power are jacking up their prices, and their profits are going through the roof. Big oil, food, shipping, health care, and real estate companies have been making record profits over the last two years. I will crack down on price gouging, but to be clear: My opponent takes the opposite position.” This anti-monopolist populism could be buttressed, they added, with a positive program promising future government programs to lower health care costs and fight for the Child Tax Credit.

The entire memo is worth reading as a plausible argument for the Democrats to present to economically fearful voters. But, as David Sirota notes in The Lever, “the kind of populism Greenberg refers to is anathema to the two constituencies that still call the shots in Democratic politics.” One constituency is policy elites (pundits and think tankers) still committed to neoliberalism. The other constituency are wealthy donors who are allergic to anti-corporate language.

Like Cassandra, Greenberg might go unheeded. If that happens, it’ll be because the party elite prefers to be defeated on a complacent status quo message to winning on a populist one.

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