Administration

Democratic critics link party problems to bad messaging

President Joe Biden
Associated Press - Carolyn Kaster

Democrats are attributing a string of White House missteps in recent months to poor strategy and messaging from President Biden and his advisers. 

For the last part of 2021, as multiple crises emerged, the White House has struggled to offer up a consistent message that could unite not only the country, as Biden pledged during the 2020 presidential campaign, but his party. Democrats have been unable to beat back Republican criticisms about rising inflation. 

They have’t offered a narrative that would persuade a pessimistic American public about the direction of the economy and the coronavirus pandemic. And headlines have been dominated by Democratic infighting over Biden’s massive social policy and climate legislative proposal — most recently with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) giving it a possibly fatal blow on Sunday. 

“I do think that the White House should go back to the drawing board and figure out, really think it through, what they want to say between now and next November,” said Bill Galston, a senior fellow of governance studies at Brookings Institution who served as a policy adviser to former President Bill Clinton. “What overall message do they want to convey? Not details of this or that but the overall message because that’s certainly gotten lost.” 

“The overall point is that messaging is not a response to a crisis,” Galston added. “It’s part of a strategy and the White House really needs to have a theory of the case and then build their messaging on the strategy.” 

Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said Biden’s vision for the country has been lost in recent months as the White House has grappled with the multiple crises. 

“I don’t think America fully understands where Democrats want us to go,” Simmons said. 

Democrats need to raise the bar to talk more about the destination America is headed toward and talk more about the people standing in the way, he said.

“The broader challenge is that Republicans have a narrative about the country and they’ve identified liberals and Democrats as the villains. The Democrats need to be more about the villains,” Simmons added.

One Democratic strategist said the problem is far worse saying the White House “needs to completely reprioritize their priorities. 

“They need a wholesale revamp of their entire communications, political and strategy team,” the strategist said.

The persistent coronavirus pandemic has dampened public opinion. Biden has made strides in vaccinating a large slice of the U.S. population, but his embrace of more controversial policies like vaccine mandates have opened him up to Republican attacks. And while Biden campaigned on defeating the virus, the more contagious omicron variant has now sprung up, complicating the recovery and causing uncertainty among Americans. Cases are currently on the upswing due to the delta and omicron variants.

Republicans have also painted a skewed picture of the economic recovery, blaming Biden’s policies for rising prices while at the same time minimizing the employment gains. 

Jobless claims have declined to the lowest levels since the 1960s and the unemployment rate has sunk to 4.2 percent. 

Meanwhile, annual inflation, driven by the pandemic and related government spending, hit its highest rate since 1982 in November and polls show voters increasingly worried about the rising costs of goods. A recent CNN poll found that roughly seven in 10 voters believe the federal government is doing too little to reduce inflation or address supply chain disruptions. 

Biden’s approval rating stands at about 44 percent, according to an average of surveys from FiveThirtyEight, and has remained low despite the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan and  $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law the president successfully ushered through Congress. 

Strategists believe that the economy and the coronavirus will be top issues in the 2020 midterm elections.

“Democrats haven’t really put together any kind of unified message on the economy that highlights any of the real gains we are making,” said Democratic strategist Max Burns.

The White House’s answer to concerns about inflation has largely been to argue that Biden’s sweeping climate and social policy package will lower healthcare, childcare and other costs for American families. 

But that package has become imperiled with Manchin’s statement Sunday that he is firmly against the legislation as it now stands.

Democrats say the internal party fighting about the legislation has hurt Biden and the party, playing into a Republican narrative of Democrats being unable to deliver. While the White House has devoted substantial time to trying to sell the Build Back Better bill to the public, that has been a complex and risky exercise because the package has changed and evolved. Biden, for instance, used to tout a provision for free community college that was ultimately cut from the package.

Some Democrats say the White House deserves more credit for its messaging strategy in the face of multiple crises. Biden’s approval rating started to take a hit over the summer amid the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and has remained low amid public exhaustion with the seemingly never-ending pandemic. 

“There’s no question we the American people are exhausted and frustrated by COVID. But the White House is doing what they should be: showing the President taking action on what people are worried about, like prices, vaccines, jobs,” said Eric Schultz, a former spokesman in the Obama White House. “As a Party, Democrats have to speak with one voice, not fight each other, but take action together.”

That might be tough to do, Galston said, until the White House rethinks their entire strategy. 

“If they have one, they’re doing a very good job of keeping it secret,” he said. 

 

 

Tags Bill Clinton Build Back Better Coronavirus COVID-19 Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin omicron

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