The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Brutal new polling on Biden should scare Democrats. But there’s a way out.

(Leah Millis/Reuters)
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Democrats have voluntarily put themselves in a political straitjacket. They regularly tell themselves they must be extraordinarily tentative about taking credit for their accomplishments, because this risks angering voters who are still struggling, potentially sparking backlash.

But what’s often missing from such assessments is a more nuanced approach: Democrats can be vocal in highlighting ways life is improving on their watch, while simultaneously speaking directly to voter concerns about how far we still have to go.

Some new polling from Democrats underscores the point. The findings are rough for Democrats, but they also suggest room for improvement, if that balance is struck in an effective way.

The polling from Global Strategy Group finds that among registered voters, Republicans hold an advantage over President Biden and Democrats on numerous economic metrics:

  • Republicans are more trusted to handle economic growth by 47 percent to 41 percent.
  • Republicans are more trusted on getting everyday rising costs under control by 45 percent to 40 percent.
  • Republicans are more trusted to handle inflation by 44 percent to 40 percent.
  • Republicans are more trusted to handle rebuilding the economy by 46 percent to 42 percent.

What’s brutal about this for Democrats is that early in 2021, they passed the covid-19 recovery act, which helped drive an economic recovery that, by many measures, has been surprisingly robust. Not a single Republican voted for it.

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Obviously this fact isn’t reflected in numbers showing Republicans with an advantage on economic growth and rebuilding the economy. It’s often suggested that views of the economy are clouded by inflation and overloaded supply chains, and the GOP edge on inflation seems to confirm this.

But the question is how Democrats should address this problem. One approach might be to take more credit for the positive impact their policies had on the recovery while also acknowledging the downsides and pledging to do more to address them.

“This is a political failure on our part,” Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg, who has been pushing his party to lean harder into that argument, told me. “The good news is we have time to fix it.”

That new polling hints at a way forward. The survey tested something novel: It asked voters about a series of specific economic metrics, and asked whether they see these as “indicators that the economy is recovering.”

The result: When asked this way, sizable majorities of voters see many of these metrics — the creation of 6 million jobs last year, GDP growth of 5.7 percent, the 4 percent unemployment rate — as indicators that the economy is indeed recovering.

What’s more, after voters answer those questions, the percentages on the initial questions flip around, with voters trusting Democrats over Republicans on job creation by 48 percent to 40 percent, and on economic growth by 47 percent to 42 percent.

One takeaway: Leaning harder into emphasizing these specific metrics of recovery might help Democrats on overall questions of economic stewardship.

“There’s an audience who can be persuaded when we say Democrats have gotten the economy up off the mat,” Jesse Ferguson, a strategist who advises this survey, told me. “It’s not ‘mission accomplished,’ but it’s ‘mission underway.’”

With inflation and supply chain woes darkening perceptions of the overall recovery, some Democrats seem skittish about emphasizing its positive aspects. The theory seems to be that, if the spending in the recovery act is partly to blame for downsides such as inflation, voters will punish them for not flagellating themselves over this.

But as Paul Krugman argues, that’s a lopsided conception of the situation. We have to ask whether we might be worse off today if we had lower inflation but hadn’t taken aggressive steps to help millions of struggling people and to jolt the economy out of paralysis created by a generational public health emergency.

Indeed, with Republicans (and media coverage) hammering at inflation daily, being overly skittish about making this case means voters will hear only one side of that story.

“Is inflation higher than we wanted?” says Rosenberg. “Yeah, but what’s the alternative? Slower growth? We did the right thing. We have to defend it.”

Rosenberg argues that Democrats should link this to a broader story, in which Democrats have repeatedly pulled the country out of economic craters created on Republicans’ watch.

“The last three Democratic presidents have all seen strong growth on their watch,” Rosenberg said. “Republicans have brought us three consecutive recessions.” This contrast, he said, “is among the most important, least understood stories in American politics today.”

If this is right, the challenge is to balance this by speaking directly to the trauma that many people continue to experience, and by vowing continued efforts to spur the recovery and spread the fruits of growth more broadly (passing parts of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda would help here).

In fact, Rosenberg noted, the arguments reinforce each other: If Democrats lean into the notion that their policies helped spur robust recovery, that supports the case that they should be kept in charge to continue addressing massive remaining challenges.

The brutal truth might be that until covid is defeated — and here Biden’s record has been very mixed — then no such message will ever break through. But if so, then if we do defeat covid, it might give Democrats a good argument in the midterms.

That case, Rosenberg said, might be this: “We’re leading us to the other side of covid. And we’ve created a strong economy to get us through.”