Why Biden polls so low on the economy — and what he is trying to do about it

It’s a feature of Biden’s 2024 re-election effort so far that is surely causing heartburn in his inner circle: not only are the president’s overall approval ratings low but voters usually rate his performance on the crucial issue of the economy even lower.

Here are just a few examples from recent weeks. A Harvard/Harris poll has Biden’s approval rating at 43% with his economic rating down at 39%. A CBS/YouGov survey has the president with an approval rating of 41% and an economic rating down at 36%. Reuters/Ipsos has the numbers coming in at 41% and 35%, respectively.

Voters’ negative views of the country’s (and their own) economic prospects present an immediate challenge to Biden’s effort to secure a second term. His cellar-level numbers also haven’t been moving in spite of an actual economy that has been defying expectations and producing positive headlines for months now.

Jim Kessler, the VP for policy at think tank Third Way, was recently asked to explain the disconnect. He posits that “inflation is a mood changer” adding that even as inflation declines “there’s a lingering effect there” from rising prices as well as the recent years of economic uncertainty.

The former top aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer, Kessler knows a thing or two about Democratic economic messaging and said in the recent interview that he isn’t overly worried this early on, noting that a slew of presidents from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama faced similar dynamics at this stage before their (ultimately successful) re-election efforts.

The White House often pivots to campaign mode about 18 months ahead of election day and, Kessler says, “through the summer and into the fall, when presidents have a successful reelection, this is usually when they start turning it around.”

President Joe Biden speaks during a labor union rally at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia on June 17. (REUTERS/Tom Brenner)

‘I’m looking forward to this campaign’

Whether or not Biden will do the same — as well as whether his economic record remains one worth touting with a recession possibly still in the offing – remains to be seen. But the president is now clearly trying.

On Saturday, he began that effort in earnest with his first rally of the 2024 campaign held before union members in Philadelphia. He delivered a speech focused almost exclusively on economic themes and made the case for drawing a direct line between his policies and an economy that has performed better than many forecasters projected.

“I’m looking forward to this campaign and I want you to know why: we’ve got a story to tell, we’ve got a record to run on,” he told the crowd before launching into an extended retelling of the state of the country when he took office and major economic legislation he has signed into law since then.

“I truly believe this country is about to take off,” he added of what’s to come because of “the investment we made these last three years.” It was a message clearly aimed at a pessimistic national mood.

On the one hand, the president is sitting atop an economy that has unemployment hovering near record lows, a booming manufacturing sector as well as declining inflation. But Biden’s challenge is that Americans across the spectrum don’t see a rosy picture.

Polling shows that a solid majority of Americans expect the economy to be in a recession over the next year — many even think we’re in one now. Another measure is consumer sentiment, which ticked up last month but remains far below pre-pandemic levels and has declined since Biden took office.

The recent Harvard/Harris poll found similar results, with half of the county saying their personal financial situation is getting worse and only a quarter thinking the US will avoid a short-term recession.

A charge from Republicans that ‘Americans know better

In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Biden also began to make the economic case for his re-election with the White House also sharing talking points with allies. The president is pressing Democrats to make the economic case on a host of issues from improving job satisfaction to the performance of the US economy versus the world.

But, as Biden acknowledged in his Saturday speech, “we’ve got a fight on our hands” with Republicans also champing at the bit to talk about the economy nonstop.

An example from the last week came when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen traveled to Capitol Hill and faced a panel of Republicans who openly scoffed at her message of a strong economy.

In one memorable exchange, House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN) charged that when it comes to the economy, the Biden administration “cherry-picks the factors that yield the most convincing numbers for whatever narrative they want to assert.”

“Americans know better,” he added in remarks that also focused on the lingering effects of inflation. It’s a message that is also being conveyed nearly every day on the GOP campaign trail among the 13 candidates (so far) looking to face off against Biden in 2024.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during the North Carolina Republican Party Convention on June 9. (Eamon Queeney for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Either way, the economy and jobs is the issue that voters tell pollsters again and again say is their top concern and so expect a lot of this back and forth on the issue between now and election day 2024.

Kessler says that the economy is one of three key issues – along with the border and crime – that Democrats need to address to be successful with both sides set to try and hammer their economic message home over the next 72 weeks.

“It takes a long time” he said of getting a message, adding a reminder that “there’s an old saying in politics, which is, ‘when you’re tired of saying it, voters are finally hearing it.'”

Ben Werschkul is Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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