Democrats weighed down by Biden scramble for message
Democrats are scrambling for a message to break through to voters as the days tick down to the midterm elections and President Biden’s approval rating remains mired at around 40 percent.
They got a wake-up call in last year’s state-level races in New Jersey and Virginia, two bellwether states that signaled a coming Republican tidal wave in the 2010 midterm elections, when then-President Obama was also struggling with a low approval rating.
Yet months after losing the Virginia governor’s race, and almost losing New Jersey’s, the political picture for Democrats hasn’t gotten better. Instead, Biden’s numbers have gotten worse.
“The political environment as indicated or revealed by Biden’s approval is basically the same or worse than it was five months ago,” said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Kondik pointed out that Biden’s average approval rating in November stood at 43 percent and has since dipped closer to 40 percent.
“Democrats really need Biden’s numbers to get better. You’re sort of running out of time for that to happen,” he said.
The nation added 431,000 jobs in March and gross domestic product increased at an annual rate of 7 percent in the fourth quarter, but Biden is still getting low marks for his handling of the economy — a 36 percent approval rating, according to an average compiled by RealClearPolitics.
Democratic lawmakers say the two biggest problems the president faces are that Americans are sick and tired of the COVID-19 pandemic, now stretching into its third year, and frustrated by rising prices, especially at the pump.
“There’s no question the successes of the economy is not being reflected in the polling of the president. So that is a more of a communications challenge for us,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the chairwoman of the Senate Democrats’ Policy and Communications Committee.
Despite Democrats’ efforts to bring attention to their accomplishments of the past 14 months, Stabenow acknowledged that inflation is “what everybody is talking about.”
“Prices are up because of supply-chain breakdowns. The next thing we’re doing is we’re laser-focused on lowering costs,” she said. “There’s price gouging going on, number one. And we don’t set gas prices, they’re set by oil companies who got 9,000 leases that they’re not drilling on, that they could.”
Senate and House Democrats have talked about suspending the federal gas tax, imposing a windfall profits tax on energy companies, enacting social spending programs to reduce the out-of-pocket costs of American families and passing prescription drug reform.
But none of those ideas are getting much public attention or seem ready for imminent action.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said Democrats “haven’t been able to amass the resources to just have a relentless message on accomplishments.”
“We got a good bump off the State of the Union, but there’s too much going on and a lot of it … not very good news,” she said.
One Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to discuss the failure to boost Biden’s job approval rating, said there’s little chance of changing the political environment as long as the pandemic and high prices continues to weigh on people’s lives.
“I think we need to overcome inflation and continue to fight COVID. It’s not so much the message, it’s actually getting it done,” the lawmaker said.
A second Democratic senator, who also requested anonymity to discuss the party’s bad poll numbers, said Democrats and especially Biden need to do a better job to publicize the accomplishments of the past year such as the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan, the $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill and postal reform.
But the lawmaker said it’s difficult for Biden to focus on the domestic agenda when he’s managing the international response to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.
“We need to go out and sell the stuff we’ve already done. The president needs to be out there doing that too. That’s gotten harder because of Ukraine, because his time is taken up with that,” said the senator.
“People are in a sour mood because of inflation and because of chaos at the border and chaos in Ukraine. In time, the president may look like he’s done a good job on Ukraine, but today I’m not sure people are giving him the benefit of the doubt,” the lawmaker added. “His think his numbers are low because part of it, frankly, is that he’s the age that he is. That worries people.”
Biden turned 79 in November.
An NBC poll published on March 27 found that 7 in 10 Americans voiced low confidence in Biden’s handling of the war in Ukraine, and 8 in 10 said they feared it would increase the cost of gas and potentially spiral into a much larger conflict.
On the COVID-19 front, Democrats haven’t been able to declare complete victory over the pandemic. The announcements last week that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Attorney General Merrick Garland and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo contracted the virus is another reminder that it remains a serious health risk.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that cases increased by 4.9 percent last week, though coronavirus-related hospitalizations dropped by 10 percent.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) said “part of the challenge is that there’s just a level of exhaustion — COVID, the economy, school closures, everything in politics and the 2020 election — I see it all over my district.”
“There’s just a level of fatigue about all things,” she said. “Then you add in tangibles like inflation and gas prices. People’s lives are difficult and the challenges they face are real.”
She argued that’s why Democratic accomplishments such as the American Rescue Plan were needed and important.
“We may not love where we are, we may not feel like things are back to normal — people are so fatigued and tired — our economic recovery has far outpaced some of our European counterparts,” she said.
But the Biden administration suffered a setback when they were forced to pull $15 billion in emergency COVID-19 spending from the year-end omnibus spending bill because of objections from House progressives and then couldn’t get a $10 billion compromise relief bill through the Senate last week because of GOP opposition.
Senate Democrats say they will take another shot at passing the legislation when they return to Washington after a two-week April recess. They will also try to finish negotiations with the House on a bill to help U.S. manufacturers, especially semiconductor makers, compete with China.
Democratic lawmakers hope to play offense later in the year by moving a slimmed-down reconciliation package to raise corporate taxes, taxes on billionaires and lower the price of prescription drugs.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has already said he opposes a White House proposal to tax the unrealized capital gains of people who have more than $100 billion in assets, but he says there are other ways to tax the ultrawealthy.
Lake, the Democratic pollster, said prescription drug reform is “a great issue.”
“It’s a very specific issue rather than these big amorphous packages. It’s something that affects people’s daily life every day. It directly relates to inflation, it directly relates to economic stability. People think you’re not going to get it done if you’re not a strong leader,” she said.
“Either you get it done or you get a vote so you get a bunch of people on record against it,” she added. “I think they’re coming around on a package they can get passed.”
“It’s really, really a strong message for us. Sixty-six percent of American adults are on a prescription drug,” she added.
Lower down on the list, she identified taxing wealthy corporations and billionaires “to pay their fair share” as very “strong” issues for Democrats to campaign on heading into the election.
“I think Democrats can still do better than expectations here,” said Jim Kessler, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) who now serves as executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.
He noted that the president’s party typically loses 10 to 12 points in bellwether states compared to the party out of power heading into midterm elections.
“The president’s party loses 10 to 12 points the moment it drives off the lot,” he said.
“Biden and Democrats are performing very close to what normal looks like. So the goal is to do better than normal, and I do believe there is a story that Democrats can tell that involves tightening their message and what they’re talking about. It’s ‘We’re beating COVID, we’re beating the Russians and we’ll beat inflation,’” he said.
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