It’s a bad sign for Joe Biden and the Democrats that their friends are urgently appealing for a course correction. It’s an even worse sign that the corrections being offered are mutually exclusive.
Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent advises Biden and the Democrats to tout their alleged achievements in bolstering the U.S. economy. Sargent acknowledges that right now the American public doesn’t see it that way. He cites poll results showing that Republicans are more trusted than Democrats to handle economic growth, to handle inflation, and to rebuild the economy.
But Sargent thinks these perceptions can be swept away by a better sales pitch:
One approach might be take more credit for the positive impact their policies had on the recovery while also acknowledging the downsides and pledging to do more to address them. . . .
“There’s an audience who can be persuaded when we say Democrats have gotten the economy up off the mat,” Jesse Ferguson, a strategist who advises this survey, told me. “It’s not ‘mission accomplished,’ but it’s ‘mission underway.’”
Sargent cites Paul Krugman who says:
We have to ask whether we might be worse off today if we had lower inflation but hadn’t taken aggressive steps to help millions of struggling people and to jolt the economy out of paralysis created by a generational public health emergency.
Sargent worries that Democrats have been “overly skittish” about making this case. However, in a New York Times op-ed called “Mr. President, It’s Time for a Little Humility,” David Axelrod counsels in favor of skittishness:
Mr. President, proceed with caution. Talk about the things you and Congress have done to help meet the challenges Americans are facing, for sure. Lay out your goals for the future, absolutely. Offer realistic hope for better days ahead. We desperately need it. But recognize that we are still in the grips of national trauma.
Polls show that the vast majority of Americans believe we are on the wrong track, and people will have little patience for lavish claims of progress that defy their lived experiences.
Who has the better argument, Sargent-Krugman or Axelrod? I say Axelrod does, which isn’t surprising inasmuch as he has managed successful presidential campaigns.
Trying to convince Americans that they are better off than they think they are seems like a fool’s errand, especially when the facts don’t support such a claim. Right now, they don’t. Wage increases haven’t kept up with price increases, as Axelrod observes.
Furthermore, taking credit for economic growth as we seem to be coming out of the pandemic might be a hard sell. Americans knew the economy wouldn’t stay on the floor once we moved away from lockdowns towards something a more normal. Most of us probably expected at least as much growth as we’ve experienced. And most expected it to come without a rate of inflation we haven’t experienced in 40 years. Furthermore, as Axelrod points out, our discontents are hardly limited to the state of the economy.
But at a more fundamental level, Sargent/Krugman and Axelrod both are right. . .and wrong. You can’t win over Americans by talking up a troubled economy. But neither can you win over Americans without talking up the status quo for which you are being held accountable.
Stuck is stuck. Right now, Joe Biden and the Democrats are stuck. Only Republicans can save them in 2022. I doubt we will.