The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Biden can explain progress to impatient voters

President Biden speaks about the bipartisan infrastructure bill at the White House on Nov. 6. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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Americans crave quick and easy solutions to serious, multifaceted problems such as climate change and economic recovery from a pandemic. You can hear it in the media’s constant refrains: “Why hasn’t the president solved [big problem] yet?” “Why has he failed to pass [big legislation introduced a month earlier]”? You can hear it in activists’ complaints that an international climate summit failed to put the planet on track to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

But simple solutions don’t exist. Leaders who try to treat people like adults (“Well, this is a work in progress”) are often painted as “defensive” or “making excuses.” Nevertheless, it is their responsibility to communicate progress. So how can President Biden keep impatient Americans on board with his agenda?

In the case of climate change, the administration has a powerful story to tell. Contrary to the nonstop chatter that Biden had lost the confidence of allies after the Afghanistan withdrawal or that he was a go-alone type like his predecessor, the COP26 summit demonstrated a remarkable turnaround in America’s world stature, which polls have documented.

The Post reports, “The Americans, including 13 Cabinet members, seemed to be everywhere at the conference: speaking on public panels, disappearing into windowless rooms, and huddling in hallways and hotel bars to shape the outcome of the talks to protect the planet, along with U.S. interests.” After four years of isolationism, anti-democratic rhetoric, climate change denial and antagonism toward allies, Biden’s adage that “the United States is back” has real meaning.

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The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. The administration should therefore take credit for a major international agreement that, in concert with green energy domestic measures, can benefit Americans. Biden needs to explain how this fits with his “middle-class foreign policy” — an approach to international relations designed to improve the lives of ordinary people. A major presidential address might persuade voters that improved international leadership can, for example, mitigate extreme weather that afflicts farms in the heartland or create new green jobs for non-college-educated workers.

Leaders must also address frustration with acute domestic problems that defy immediate solutions, such as inflation. After trying to minimize the duration and extent of price increases, the Biden administration now appears determined to educate and reassure Americans that they are “working on” inflation.

Treasury Secretary Janet L.Yellen and Brian Deese, head of the National Economic Council, fanned out on the Sunday talk shows to deliver the message. While Republicans would have us believe that Biden caused inflation, Yellen explained that the gigantic underlying problem — the pandemic — forced his (measured) response. (Do Republicans claim that inflation is the result of only Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue plan — and not the roughly $3 trillion in stimulus under his predecessor?)

“[The pandemic] boosted unemployment to almost 15 percent, and we’ve been opening up in fits and starts,” Yellen said. She added, “Households were unable to spend on services — going out to eat and traveling. They shifted as they stayed at home, worked more from home. They shifted their spending on to goods that led to a surge in the demand for products.” She added that “although the supply of products has increased in the United States and globally, not as much as demand.”

The solution, Yellen explained, is to slay the pandemic to return economic behavior to normal. This would allow consumers to spend more on services (rather than just goods) and businesses to find workers and meet full production.

Deese fleshed out that explanation:

We know that the more that people feel comfortable getting out into the economy — going to movies rather than buying a television at home, working in the workplace — the more we can return a sense of normalcy to our economy. Getting [covid-19] shots out for 5-to-11-year-olds is going to provide a lot of comfort to American families. We’re making a lot of progress on that front. Getting more workplaces covid-free is going to make more Americans comfortable getting back into the labor market as well.

Deese also made the case that the Build Back Better plan (in conjunction with the infrastructure deal) is part of the inflation solution. “Because it’s fully paid for, it doesn’t add aggregate demand to the economy,” Deese argued. “It makes these investments while actually offsetting them by increasing taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals. . . . So we have a fully paid-for plan to go directly at the costs that typical Americans are facing, increase the productive capacity of our economy — this is what Americans are looking for.”

Full recovery from the pandemic and the impact of the yet-to-be-passed Build Back Better plan, however, are long-term propositions. In the short-run, Yellen noted that the administration is “looking for everything that we can possibly do to help unclog supply chains.” Deese echoed this message: “Right now, the American economy is moving more goods through the economy than we ever have. But that’s creating some challenges,” he offered. “We’re working with the ports in [Los Angeles] and Long Beach, getting them to go 24/7.”

The consequences of the coronavirus pandemic include not only job loss and business failures, but also the inflation that ensues when the economy restarts. If Biden wants to manage expectations, he needs to tell voters, perhaps from the Oval Office, where inflation comes from, what he is doing about it and what the near- and long-term future looks like. (And perhaps the media could ask what anti-inflation measures Republicans want. Benefit cuts? Taxes or interest rate hikes?)

The expectation for immediate solutions to complex problems, driven by the mainstream media’s frantic tone and Americans’ social media-truncated attention spans, means leaders must focus on educating voters. Not unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose 30 or so fireside chats sustained America during the Great Depression, this president has to bring the public along with him by highlighting successes, outlining the causes of problems and reassuring them he is making progress on their behalf.

Whether the country has lost the requisite patience and trust in government to allow for such a mature conversation remains unknown. Biden nevertheless has no alternative but to try.