Fresh off a surprisingly successful and confrontational State of the Union address that doubled as a preview of his reelection campaign, President Joe Biden launched a national tour to tout some signature projects in his landmark infrastructure bill. He presided over ribbon-cutting ceremonies for multimillion-dollar initiatives to restore bridges and highways and to phase in fleets of electric buses. All the while, he chided Republican political leaders for blocking progress on these key arenas of national economic renewal.
The only trouble was, Biden’s galvanizing message didn’t seem to leave much of an impression on its intended audience. Correspondents for The Washington Post following him on the Wisconsin leg of his tour reported that many voters there weren’t even aware that the president was in their midst; the events were closed to the public and hadn’t been advertised beforehand. They’d only found out about Biden’s appearances when, to their irritation, traffic had been diverted and photo-op sites cordoned off.
There’s a deeper irony here than the Veep-like spectacle of a nationwide program to streamline infrastructure snarling up commuters’ schedules. In making his reelection pitch, Biden has set a challenge for himself that few recent incumbent presidents have faced: He’s betting that he can defy the overall trend of public opinion and demonstrate that government can actually work, delivering material improvements in the everyday lives of Americans.
On paper, that shouldn’t be a tall order for a president who has a battery of ambitious economic achievements to promote—not only the infrastructure package but the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS Act’s many subsidies to the tech sector, not to mention an economy performing close to full employment. But American politics has long pivoted on a wholesale distrust of government—or, perhaps more accurately, a commitment to divert it to blunter ideological aims, such as the great rolling hellscape known as Ron DeSantis’s policy agenda, or Donald Trump’s own fledgling reelection crusade to marshal federal resources behind right-wing education demagoguery. In a political era of movement-baiting viral memes, Biden’s infrastructure tour felt a bit like a civics class filmstrip.
Still, there are potential hidden strengths in Biden’s focused appeal to government-directed enterprise. “I think he’s savvy enough to know the traditional paradox that Americans complain about government and don’t trust it, but they like its specifics,” says Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University. “I would think that an effective strategy is to keep telling people what he’s given them. I don’t know if he’ll do it, though. Democrats are still nervous about playing in the shadow of Republican presidents.”
Indeed, going back to the Reagan era, Democrats have been frightened of Republican shadows even more than their own—hence the long, glum drumbeat of neoliberal capitulation to right-wing policy frameworks stretching from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama. That posture of learned policy helplessness was grimly aligned with the party’s generally bumbling economic messaging over those years. Whereas George W. Bush and Trump both made a point of sending physical checks to recipients of federal stimulus funds, Obama elected to forgo that vulgar spectacle, and structured his stimulus as a payroll tax cut turning up in unobtrusive stealth fashion in their financial statements.
So Biden’s reelection bid will mark a new moment in our political lifetimes: an incumbent Democratic president promoting genuinely life-changing measures that have the potential to reach all Americans. It’s a record that should be an easy sell for a party serious about real economic populism—and in many ways, Biden is ideally positioned to make the pitch. “Biden is different from his predecessors in three ways,” Zelizer says. “Having been vice president when Obama pushed a big stimulus program and didn’t get credit for it—or even take credit for it—is on his mind. Second, I think he saw how, with the Affordable Care Act rollout, the more people experienced the benefits, the more popular it became—to the point that Republicans didn’t want to cut it. And finally, his age puts him in an era when that’s what you did: You boasted about what you did. That was just politics. He’s a different generation.”
Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University and the author of What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party, notes that Biden is old-school in another way: He’s a devoted party man—and has changed his platform and messaging to reflect an emerging policy consensus among Democrats. “The left of the party has been on the march and growing, and he’s got his finger in the wind,” Kazin says. “He always has. He was against busing when he started in the Senate, and now he’s Mr. Black Lives Matter. He was also a DLC [Democratic Leadership Council] person—briefly, but he was.”
But even if Biden is the man for this particular message, it’s still far from clear that the message will resonate in this historical moment. Despite his record, polling consistently shows that the public is underwhelmed by Biden’s Oval Office tenure so far, with more than 62 percent of Americans agreeing that he’s done little or nothing over the past two years. Especially troubling is the steady stream of polling indicating that majorities don’t think Biden has performed well in precisely the sort of economic initiatives that he’s going to run on—measures like infrastructure renewal and job creation.
Of course, this is also what political campaigns are for—to hammer home achievements and policy agendas across the national landscape—and the 2024 cycle has yet to begin in earnest. At the same time, that landscape is fragmented as rarely before by negative partisanship and information distortion on a massive scale. “We haven’t had a majority party for 50 years,” Kazin says. “It’s a hard pattern to break. Since Nixon resigned, there have been 12 presidential elections, and each party has won six. That kind of partisanship, it takes something like the Great Depression to break that up.”