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Opinion Biden is changing how he’s talking about his agenda. It’s overdue.

President Biden delivers a speech during a visit to the Port of Baltimore on Nov. 10. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

President Biden has faced searing criticism for failing to discuss what voters care most about, especially inflation. Disgruntled Democrats argue the public does not understand what is in the yet-to-be-passed Build Back Better bill.

Biden seemed to address these concerns on Wednesday in an appearance in Baltimore. He didn’t change his agenda, but he did change how he talks about it. That readjustment could not have come soon enough for many Democrats.

First and foremost, Biden now is talking candidly about inflation. He began, “I’m here to talk about one of the most pressing economic concerns of the American people — and it’s real. And that is: getting prices down, number one; number two, making sure our stores are fully stocked; and number three, getting a lot of people back to work while tracking and tackling these two above challenges I mentioned.”

He continued in that vein: “Many people remain unsettled about the economy and we all know why. They see higher prices,” Biden conceded. “They go to the store … or online and they can’t find what they always want and when they want it.” In plain language he empathized with Americans, saying, “Everything from a gallon of gas to a loaf of bread costs more. We still face challenges and we have to tackle them.”

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More important, he explained why prices are spiking and what he is doing about it. Pent-up demand combined with supply chain delays make for higher costs and delays in delivery. As Bill Clinton used to do, Biden boiled down a complex problem:

So, on the one hand, we’re facing new disruptions to our supplies. But at the same time, we’re also experiencing higher demand for goods because wages are up, as well as — as well as people have money in the bank. And because of the strength of our economic recovery, American families have been able to buy more products.
And — but guess what? They’re not going out to dinner and lunch and going to the local bars because of covid. So what are they doing? They’re staying home, they’re ordering online, and they’re buying product.
Well, with more people with money buying product and less product to buy, what happens? ... Prices go up.

He promised that infrastructure investment will build resilience into the supply chain over the long run. He also vowed, “I’m not waiting to sign a bill to start improving the flow of goods from ships to shelves. Yesterday, I announced … a port plan of action. It lays out concrete steps for my administration to take over the next three months to invest in our ports and to relieve bottlenecks.” He also boasted of his agreement with heads of major retailers and transportation carriers to work 24/7 to minimize delivery delays.

Biden is trying to address multiple issues — inflation, employment, climate change, health-care costs and covid-19 — with his two gargantuan pieces of legislation, each of which has a slew of individual items. If Biden wants to bolster confidence, he needs to makes sense of this flurry of legislative activity and convey that he is focused on the right things.

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Biden could sharpen his message with a high-altitude view of his agenda: He’s helping the middle class get good paying jobs (infrastructure, green energy) and reducing their expenses (fixing the supply chain, getting grocery prices under control, bringing down the cost of child care or prescription drugs). That’s it. Everything is either about increasing jobs and wages or reducing expenses. To borrow from the art world, instead of pointillism, Biden needs to use vibrant colors and make broad strokes to convey what is at stake. And he has got to do it day after day until the message sinks in.

Since Biden has put bipartisan infrastructure in the “win” column, he could start hitting Republicans, who have gone off the deep end. They should face well-deserved denunciation for their anti-vaccination disinformation, anti-worker and anti-family votes (e.g., no child care support, no child tax credit) and violent rhetoric. Shamefully, they’re still taking marching orders from the disgraced former president.

Instead of playing defense on education, Biden also can begin to slam Republicans’ effort to turn education into a political battleground on race. Call out bullies who threaten school boards. Denounce book burning. Slam Republicans for refusing to fund schools (starting with their unanimous opposition to the American Rescue Plan). And it would not hurt if Democrats were to champion civics education and the complete teaching of history (the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. included) to counteract the Republicans’ penchant for authoritarianism and airbrushing history.

Biden is focusing on the right things. Now, the task is to simplify his message and go on the offense against Republicans.

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