Biden, under growing pressure from Democratic allies to wage a more aggressive rebuttal, plans to sharpen his economic focus in coming weeks with the rollout of new proposals to stimulate job creation, according to a senior campaign adviser. The campaign also plans to intensify its drive to remind voters of Trump’s sluggish response to the novel coronavirus and the unemployment spike that followed.
The dueling efforts come less than five months before Election Day. By almost every indicator, Trump’s bid for a second term is in peril, with Biden sprinting out to leads in battleground states and into competition in some conservative strongholds. But in a twist, the economy, which has been a bellwether in the modern history of presidential races, is one major domain where voters still give Trump encouraging marks, bolstered by occasional bright spots like Tuesday’s report that retail sales jumped 17.7 percent in May.
That worries some Democrats. “It could potentially be very alarming because [of] those people that believe, whether it’s true or not, that it’s in their financial interest to support somebody,” said Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the Democratic mayor of Jackson, Miss. “I think we have to get stronger on policy.”
His comments echoed the nervousness expressed privately by other Biden allies, even as their candidate is showing historic strength for a challenger. On Wednesday, Biden plans to travel to Pennsylvania to deliver remarks on getting Americans back to work and reopening the country safely.
The battle over the economy in a sense represents a reversal of the two candidates’ natural postures. Trump, a combative figure who has often painted a grim picture of the country, is selling a rosy view of the future. Biden, who has long voiced faith in the decency of Americans and the nation’s grit, is sounding loud alarms about its direction.
As voters turn against Trump amid a string of crises, periodically inflamed by the president’s own actions, his reelection campaign has found a glimmer of hope in the polls on his handling of the economy.
A late-May Washington Post-ABC News survey showed Biden leading Trump by 10 percentage points among registered voters. But those voters also said they trusted Trump and Biden in nearly equal measure to oversee the economic recovery, with 48 percent siding with Trump and 47 percent trusting Biden.
A 30-second advertisement the Trump campaign released this month previewed an argument his aides intend to emphasize. It presents the pandemic as a deadly contagion beyond Trump’s control and argues that only he can return the U.S. economy to its pre-virus strength.
“The great American comeback has begun,” says a narrator, as an image of a woman flipping the sign on her storefront to “open” flashes across the screen. “Before the pandemic, President Trump made our economy the envy of the world. Now he’s doing it again.”
“Trump is broadcasting that his strategy is to run on improving the economy after a crisis he bungled ended up causing historic job loss. There are two major flaws in this desperate scheme and we plan to exploit them,” reads a memo the Biden campaign sent to top allies late last week, obtained by The Washington Post.
The memo argues that Trump worsened the economic crisis and lacks a plan for resolving it. It points out that Biden recently released a blueprint for reopening and jump-starting the economy, which includes directing the federal government to provide and pay for coronavirus testing for every worker called back on the job.
But some Democrats want to see more detailed economic proposals from Biden. Behind the scenes, the former vice president and his advisers are pulling together new ideas they plan to unveil soon.
“In the coming weeks, we will lay out some new proposals around both accelerating the return of jobs and the creation of millions of new jobs, through a combination of pulling forward the investments he’s already committed to very early on in his first term and scaling them up,” Jake Sullivan, one of Biden’s top policy advisers, said in an interview.
The plans will involve new investments in manufacturing and innovation, bringing back critical supply chains, investing in infrastructure and addressing issues related to education, Sullivan said.
“I think what the vice president is going to want to present is a vision of a robust and resilient economy on the other side of this crisis,” said Jared Bernstein, who served as chief economist to Biden when he was vice president and still advises him informally.
Biden convenes near daily briefings with economic experts, Sullivan said, adding that the candidate often asks for specific data. For example, Biden asked this week for an update on racial disparities in the allocation of Cares Act funds, he said.
But Trump has seized on the glimmers of good economic news amid the downturn, complicating Biden’s pitch. The stock market has made some gains recently, and the federal unemployment rate dropped in May to a still- high 13.3 percent. Although 21 million people remained out of work, Trump touted the news, which was more positive than many analysts expected.
Democrats say Trump benefited from a strong economy left by his predecessor, President Barack Obama. They predict that as time goes on, attitudes toward his handling of the economy will worsen, just as his initially solid approval rating on the pandemic slid as the outbreak played out.
“I think the fact that President Trump inherited a roaring economy has given him at least a rhetorical advantage the last several years, and he’s probably still benefiting from that, said Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.).
Either way, Trump’s campaign wants voters to remember their impressions of that booming economy before the pandemic slammed the brakes.
“The president has an incredible record to run on prior to the coronavirus, because we had to artificially interrupt the economy to protect American lives and save people from the coronavirus,” said Erin Perrine, a Trump campaign spokeswoman.
Trump and his allies are seeking to portray themselves as stewards of the country’s reopening, though those decisions are largely made by state and local jurisdictions. They hope to use the idea of the “great American comeback” as a broad theme, allowing the president to offer a message of helping underserved communities and forgotten Americans.
On Wednesday, for example, the president will highlight his administration’s work to prevent veteran suicides. On Thursday, he will discuss his plans to increase broadband access in rural communities.
Since late March, there has been a growing sense inside the White House that even once the worst of the coronavirus passes, the country will still have to recover from a drastic hit to the economy, one adviser said. Not only would the administration need a policy plan to help the nation heal, the adviser said, but of nearly equal importance would be providing an inspiring message.
“For 60 years, with the exception of 1972, when President Nixon had decisive advantages over his opponent, America has routinely elected the presidential candidate who they thought was more optimistic and forward-looking,” said Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president. Nixon’s opponent in 1972 was then-Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), whose policies were too left-leaning for many voters at the time.
As a result, Trump has cast himself as the nation’s “cheerleader,” repeatedly offering a hopeful message not entirely reflective of the current reality.
“Biden risks seeming overly sour and dour in a moment that is already that way, following months of Americans feeling locked down and helpless against a global pandemic,” Conway said.
Trump’s own strategy is not without risk. Larry Kudlow, a top economic adviser to the president, acknowledged that if Trump’s rosy projections for economic recovery do not match the daily lives of many Americans, it could increase his political challenge — but he added that both he and the president are optimists who anticipate a V-shaped recovery.
Kudlow said he believes the most apt metaphor for the current moment is a snowstorm or hurricane — something that wreaks genuine havoc but is only temporary.
“The hurricane does pass, and as it does, the economy recovers and it generally recovers pretty fast,” Kudlow said. “And my argument is we were strong going in and therefore when the worst is over, we will be strong coming back.”
From the perspective of some Democrats, however, that will not cure Trump’s political woes. The economy is not the decisive factor it once was, they argue.
“Donald Trump has made this a referendum on Donald Trump, and so the economy is not on the ballot in 2020 as it had been in the past,” said former congressman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), a veteran party strategist who once helmed the House Democratic campaign arm. “Donald Trump’s behavior is on the ballot.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.