Why Joe Biden is Running on the Economy

6 minute read

With the presidential election just over one year away, the Biden Administration faces a challenge: how to convince skeptical voters that the economy is in much better shape than they think.

As his aides search for a message that could break through to voters, President Joe Biden has been on a tour across the U.S. to tout his economic record and discuss the ways his policies are helping the middle class, making what he calls “Bidenomics” a key pillar of his reelection pitch. But Biden seems aware of the risks of tying himself to an economic climate that still makes voters wary: “I’m not here to declare victory on the economy,” Biden said on Thursday at a South Carolina manufacturing facility. “I’m here to say we have a plan that’s turning things around quickly, but we have a lot more work to do.”

The President’s stop in South Carolina, a deep-red state that he lost by more than 10 points in the last presidential election, comes amid an Administration-wide effort to build up public awareness of Biden’s legislative victories as he runs for reelection in 2024. Polling shows voters remain discontented with the economy as inflation holds steady, despite record job creation numbers and an unemployment rate hovering near 50-year lows. Biden’s approval rating was just below 42% in late June, according to a FiveThirtyEight polling average.

In the past, Biden has blamed his low approval rating on the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, both of which led to high gasoline prices, rising food costs, and increases in other cost-of-living expenses as inflation hit a 40-year high last summer. But as inflation cools, the Biden Administration is now eager to take full political ownership of the U.S. economy.

“I think it’s the most important issue to the race,” says Bryan DeAngelis, a longtime Democratic strategist who was involved in the 2009 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform. “The economy is always number one in voters’ minds. So barring something unforeseen happening in the future, I expect this will still be issue number one on the campaign trail and then on Election Day.”

Two senior White House officials, requesting to speak on background, told reporters on Thursday that the President is feeling good about his economic strategy as unemployment has now stayed below 4% for the longest stretch of consecutive months since the 1960s. “People are starting to feel the results of this,” one of the officials said. “We need to tell the story.”

Part of the strategy is to sell Americans on “Bidenomics,” a term White House aides have described as a broad collection of policies aimed at reviving and reshaping the economy to help the middle class. The Biden Administration has pointed to a range of efforts, including bolstering manufacturing investments, expanding high-speed internet access, and cracking down on industries that charge so-called junk fees.

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But while Biden’s team hopes crafting a coherent message around the economy will win over voters, strategists on both sides of the aisle warn it could represent one the President’s biggest vulnerabilities in the race. Mike Lux, a long-time Democratic strategist who has worked as a senior staffer or advisor on six different presidential campaigns, says economic issues are Republicans’ “strongest chance at hurting Biden.” Already, the Republican frontrunners—former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis—have doubled down on Biden’s economic record and vowed to make it a top campaign priority. “When I left office, we handed Joe Biden the fastest economic recovery ever recorded — all with no inflation,” Trump said at a campaign event in April. “He took that booming economy, and he promptly blew it to shreds.”

Robert Blizzard, a veteran GOP pollster, says that voters are still concerned that their family’s incomes are falling behind the cost of living, and fears of a possible recession continue to loom large on people’s spending. “I think one of the challenges that this President has in particular is anytime he opens his mouth on anything, he is running the risk of alienating more Americans,” he says. “This strategy has the risk of significant pushback.”

For much of Biden’s presidency, his team has tried to defend his economic achievements, including dedicating a significant portion of his State of the Union address in February to highlight his record on job growth and unemployment. As the presidential race begins to take shape, the Administration appears set on intensifying messaging efforts about its economic agenda. “I do think it will be easier now than it was a year ago when inflation was so high for Biden to sell his economic policies,” says Brad Bannon, a long-time Democratic strategist. “But they need to keep their pedal to the metal and make a consistent effort to talk about his achievements over the next year and a half.”

In South Carolina on Thursday, Biden declared that Republican-led states are gaining factory jobs because of economic measures he pushed through Congress despite stiff GOP opposition. He pointed to government investments in computer chips, batteries, and electric vehicles that will help bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. “I didn’t get much help from the other team, but that didn’t stop us from getting it done,” Biden said. “Every Republican member of Congress voted against the Inflation Reduction Act.”

Blizzard argues part of the challenge is that most Americans are yet to fully feel the impact of Biden’s signature economic laws, including the bipartisan infrastructure bill, CHIPS and Science Act, and Inflation Reduction Act. “I don’t think anybody knows what the hell the CHIPS act is,” he says. “If I did a focus group with voters across the country on what the CHIPS act is, they would probably wonder if it’s Doritos or Lays.”

Still, Democratic strategists believe the real risk for Biden is avoiding the issue entirely because it’s unpopular. “The economy is on people’s minds,” Lux says. “You can’t avoid the topic. So we need to lean into the fight. We need to make our case. I don’t think we have any choice.”

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Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com