Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book “Abraham Joshua Heschel: A life of Radical Amazement.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
President Joe Biden must work harder to spread some holiday cheer now that we have a great deal of positive economic news to celebrate.
The United States had the lowest weekly jobless claims in more than 52 years and wages are rising. Although inflation remains a real problem in certain sectors, gas prices have started to drop, shipping is getting cheaper and bottlenecks in the supply chain are easing up. Though the stock market has gone through several swings in recent weeks, overall, the trend has been positive and investors are reaping historic profits.
To be sure, the Omicron variant of Covid-19 continues to pose global risks, nearly two years into the pandemic. But the state of the US economy is pretty good given the circumstances.
Yet voters don’t seem happy. Polls show that Americans are not pleased with the economy and President Biden’s leadership on that front. According to a recent Wall Street Journal poll, Americans are going into the midterm season feeling pessimistic about the future. The Republicans, many feel, are better positioned to handle several economic challenges including inflation.
In other words, there is a huge disconnect between the economic data and the way voters are feeling. This is a big problem for Democrats. If political strategist James Carville was right when he famously coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” then the President and his party need to make sure voters have a better grasp of the US’ economic recovery.
Biden, of course, faces a number of obstacles that will be difficult to overcome. In our age of intense political polarization, large parts of the electorate are unlikely to change their minds about Biden – regardless of what happens. It will be virtually impossible for the President to persuade some voters – especially those who consume information from media outlets like Fox News – that any of the economic data should be greeted with applause. To paraphrase the words of comedian Groucho Marx, whatever it is, they’re against it.
It’s important to note that the good news doesn’t necessarily drown out the real difficulties Americans face. The effect of inflation on key goods, including food, will impact how families feel about the direction of the economy. And due to chronic economic inequality, there are many families in lower income brackets who struggle to make ends meet, in good times and bad. The ongoing pandemic, moreover, continues to create a level of deep uncertainty. Until Covid-19 is under control and the horrors of the last two years fade from memory, reports of new variants will continue to shake the economic confidence of the electorate.
That doesn’t mean Biden and the Democrats should simply throw their hands in the air and sit by, waiting for Republicans to triumph in the 2022 midterms. Even with the challenges of a fragmented media and intense political polarization, presidents still have a huge platform at their command and Biden should take advantage of it.
The President needs to remind Americans just how far we’ve come since the dark days of March 2020, and hammer home the supporting evidence to show the economy is strong. He needs to promote an overall economic picture that doesn’t allow the conversation to revolve solely around inflation – even as he takes these problems seriously and works to drive up the supply of goods and ease inflation. It’s a tough balancing act but one that will be essential to protecting his party.
As President, Biden has the chance to help shift the narrative so Americans get the sense that it’s “Morning in America Again” – as a 1984 ad for Ronald Reagan’s reelection put it – instead of a repeat of the economic malaise that plagued the 1970s. In our current state of politics, the President can’t just assume that the facts will speak for themselves. Through his public appearances, he must work harder to help the nation understand that there is a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of how we are doing.
If the President can’t pull this off, Republicans will inevitably do the work of controlling the narrative for him. Good economic news will be pushed aside. More jobs and higher wages will receive far less attention than rising prices. And if Carville is correct – and there is good reason to believe that he is – Democrats will have a difficult road ahead.