The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats try a crazy new approach: Touting their accomplishments

President Biden signs the American Rescue Plan, a coronavirus relief package, in the White House on March 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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It’s increasingly looking like Joe Biden will suffer Barack Obama’s fate: Handed an economy in crisis by his Republican predecessor, he’ll work to pull it back from the brink, then watch two years later as voters frustrated with the pace of national recovery hand the House back to the people who caused so many problems in the first place.

Up until now, Democrats have been mostly reluctant to tout what has gone right under their governance. But now the House Majority PAC has cut this new ad:

Though it’s unclear how much money will be behind the ad, Democrats say it will be the template for more to come. And Democrats have a lot of persuading to do. A recent Quinnipiac poll found only 35 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the economy, and the outlook is grim for Democrats.

All this is despite the fact that Biden’s jobs record is better than any president in history, at least during his first year. Unemployment is down to 3.6 percent, and 6.6 million jobs were created in Biden’s first 12 months in office, more than any year on record. We’ve added over 400,000 jobs for 11 months in a row. Though it’s true we’ve been working our way out of a deep hole, all this also confirms how remarkable the rebound has been.

One might argue that those aren’t the only important economic facts. That’s true, but they are facts, ones that should contribute to any understanding of how the economy is doing. And apparently almost no Americans are aware of them.

Until now, Democrats seemed to have internalized the idea that Americans can’t be talked out of the belief that there’s nothing good happening in the economy. They’ve convinced themselves that they’ll look out of touch if they dare talk about the positive economic gains.

Nevertheless, there is some evidence that when voters are told about improvements in the economy, perceptions of it improve. The Democratic polling firm Global Strategy Group recently found that after voters were read specific economic facts — about GDP growth, jobs created and the unemployment rate under Biden — much larger percentages then trusted Democrats over Republicans on the economy.

“If Trump were president right now, he’d be going out every single day and screaming from the rooftops about the unemployment rate,” a Democratic operative involved in House races told us.

Obviously Democrats shouldn’t fully emulate Trump in this regard. The nuanced sweet spot is pointing to the successes in a full-throated but credible way, while also acknowledging the problems that are still hampering the recovery (inflation, supply chains) and pitching solutions to them.

In that regard, it’s significant that the new ad touts the $35-per-month cap on insulin prices that just passed the House and will be debated in the Senate. That’s something clear and concrete that Democrats can tout — and if Republicans kill it, Democrats can hammer them for it.

But this is also a reminder of how bad a hand Democrats have been given in part due to Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). After the covid-19 recovery bill passed last year with an expanded child tax credit, which delivered monthly checks to most American families, Democrats planed to tout it as another clear and concrete benefit they’d delivered.

But when Manchin killed Biden’s Build Back Better proposal, the expansion died with it, ending those payments for large numbers of struggling families. Now a new Morning Consult/Politico poll finds that, whereas Democrats previously held a 12-point advantage in the generic ballot matchup among recipients of that credit, now Republicans have edged into the lead among them.

Every single Republican voted against the bill extending that credit. Yet even though virtually every Democrat supports it, and it died because of the outsize power of a single Democrat, such nuances will probably not stop voters from holding the ruling party responsible for this failure.

Meanwhile, exacerbating the problem, news story after news story places the good economic news alongside Republican claims that the economy has been reduced to smoldering wreckage, treating these as equivalent arguments. And you’ll see about 100 stories about inflation for every story about the good job market. Point out the job situation, and you’re met with “But inflation! Inflation inflation inflation! How dare you talk about anything but inflation!”

Any Democratic hopes of holding the House turn on getting Biden’s approval numbers up, because presidential approval is the coin of the realm in midterms. One operative told us it has to be at least 45 percent (it’s now below 42 percent) for that to be at all possible.

Which explains why Democrats, rather than flagellating themselves, are starting to make an affirmative case that their governing has been better than the alternative. It might not be enough, but it’s the best they’ve got.