White House sees 2024 opportunity in 'Bidenomics' pitch, despite economic pessimism

"No question that there is a disconnect" in public attitude, one professor said.

August 25, 2023, 3:09 PM

President Joe Biden's reelection pitch is taking shape around one word: Bidenomics.

The four-syllable label has become the White House's way of broadly gesturing to his economic platform, which -- as they are quick to tout -- includes targeted investments in U.S. industry, support for unions and more.

This summer, Biden and his surrogates have fanned out across the United States to advertise that record, particularly in swing states like Arizona, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania ahead of the 2024 presidential election. Campaign advisers say it will continue to be a core part of Biden's messaging strategy.

"Since I took office, I've seen more than $3 billion in private investment in clean energy manufacturing, all across Wisconsin," he said in Milwaukee earlier this month. "That's Bidenomics. That's investing in America."

But Biden's ready embrace of the term also represents a significant political wager: that he will benefit electorally by hitching his political image to the state of the economy, an issue on which he has gotten low marks in past polling.

Republicans see opportunity in that sour mood.

"We need to send Joe Biden back to his basement and reverse American decline. And it starts with understanding we must reverse Bidenomics," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at Wednesday night's GOP presidential primary debate, drawing applause from the conservative audience.

Still, Biden and his advisers believe he's making a good bet.

"The president has a plan, and it has very concrete components: smart investments, infrastructure, manufacturing and giving people higher wages," a senior administration official told ABC News. "Anybody saying that we should repeal this agenda … I think they're going to have a tough sell."

A recent flurry of positive economic data seems to support that claim. Manufacturing is rising steeply, with the White House saying in June that nearly 800,000 manufacturing jobs have been created since Biden took office. And at its meeting last month, the staff of the Federal Reserve said that a recession, which they had been predicting, was no longer expected to happen.

But Americans still report feeling pessimistic. Biden's approval ratings on the economy have consistently hovered at around 33% since the peak of the pandemic. That's lower than his overall approval rating, which stands in the low 40s, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Breaking through there will be paramount for Biden as he builds a campaign message around economics. The cause of that persistent pessimism remains something of a puzzle to both the administration and some economists alike. Various explanations say consumers' decreasing purchasing power, sheer partisan bias, negative media coverage, or skittishness from COVID-19-related economic disruptions are to blame.

But to Darren Grant, an economics professor at Sam Houston State University, there is no mystery to the pessimism. His recent work on the topic shows a simple explanation for Americans' economic view: inflation rose, and wages didn't keep up.

When Grant published his paper earlier this year, "some were eager to claim the public had become unreasonable," he said. "I found that the public's view of the economy is not fundamentally irrational."

That decline in consumers' purchasing power, which Grant found could explain "most" of Americans' recent shift in attitude, has gradually reversed over the course of 2023, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden delivers remarks at Camp David, Aug. 18, 2023 in Camp David, Md.
President Joe Biden delivers remarks at Camp David, Aug. 18, 2023 in Camp David, Md.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, FILE

Grant also found that the unemployment rate matters significantly less for people's economic attitudes than it has in the past. That might explain why Biden's trumpeting of low unemployment rates isn't making much of a dent in voters' assessment of the economy.

Like many economists, Grant isn't sure why historically high employment doesn't, on its own, seem to be having the heartening effect it once did. His best guess is that the job market is less flexible these days -- in other words, it will take more time for the benefits of a thriving job market to fatten people's wallets.

"If you've dug a hole, then you need to get out of it," Grant said. "That could take a little while."

Andrew Davis, a self-described liberal Republican who lives in Washington, D.C., characterized his current financial state as a "crunch period," with particularly high costs at the grocery store and in his utility bills.

"I'm not gonna say the bottom's out, but I don't -- my money doesn't stretch," he said.

While Biden touts positive economic indicators, Republicans are presenting prospective voters with a different story about the economy. GOP presidential hopefuls have sneered at "Bidenomics" and made inflation -- which peaked last summer at around 9% and has since dropped back to 3% -- a near-constant talking point in their campaigns.

"Bidenomics in a nutshell is: You pay more for the necessities of life, your standard of living goes down, the government gets bigger and more powerful, and ultimately China will benefit," DeSantis, the No. 2 Republican hopeful, according to national polling, said in a recent interview on Fox News.

Republicans are also putting forward economic plans of their own. Last week, former President Donald Trump sketched out a plan to impose a 10% tariff on all foreign imports in an attempt to put what he terms a "ring around" the U.S. economy, which some experts have warned would destabilize global trade.

"When companies come in and they dump their products in the United States, they should pay, automatically, let's say a 10% tax," Trump said in an interview on Fox Business. "I do like the 10% for everybody."

Some onlookers -- including those in the White House -- believe those messaging fights are part of the puzzle. Data suggests that people sense a disconnect between their own personal finances and the state of the economy more broadly.

A majority of Americans say the economy is in bad shape, but at the same time say their own finances are good, a Quinnipiac poll released last week found.

"There's no question that there is a disconnect," said Mark Copelovitch, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

He agrees that some people have been hit particularly hard by economic stressors, "but there are lots of people who are better off who also think they aren't doing well."

Copelovitch's forthcoming research finds that some of the best predictor of people's views of the economy are their partisan identities and how much right-wing media they consume.

Democrats are about three times more likely than Republicans to say that the economy is "good," according to an AP/NORC poll released last week. That's consistent with the general trend that, going back to the early 2000s, people feel better about the economy when their own party controls the White House, CBS News polling shows.

The White House shares the hunch that the pessimism has a lot to do with media coverage.

"There's an obvious mismatch between a year of hundreds, if not thousands, of headlines about a recession, and the fact that there just hasn't been a recession," the Biden administration official said. "If you're seeing headlines like that, and you're hearing punditry like that nonstop for a year, it certainly gives you a bad sense of the overall economy, even if you yourself are doing OK."