Why ‘Bidenomics’ failed

'It’s the freedom, stupid'

Why ‘Bidenomics’ failed

Depending on which news cycle you believe, Donald Trump is either poised to win the 2024 election or doomed to defeat. This week, new polls showed Trump beating President Joe Biden handily in key states. Then Tuesday’s election victories for Democratic politicians in Republican-leaning states restored some hope that not all is lost.

But Democrats should not let a bit of good news lull them into ignoring the dangers of a second Trump presidency. The polls are too close and the threat of a second Trump term remains very real. Since Trump has made it clear he is willing to dismantle American democracy and rule as an authoritarian, it’s clear that the American people do not fully understand what will be at stake in next year’s elections.

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The blame for this appears to be falling largely on the president, who finds himself in the typical Washington trap. Biden believes his accomplishments as president speak for themselves. And since some key metrics indicate the economy is good rather than bad, Biden and his team appear to think they can simply take credit for the economy to win. So Biden’s campaign thus far appears to rely on lists of accomplishments and something called “Bidenomics,” a clunky term designed to brand the American economy as a direct consequence of Biden’s presidency.

So, why aren’t American voters enthusiastic about Biden’s long list of policy accomplishments and his economic theory? Readers of the FrameLab newsletter probably have a good idea of why, but let’s summarize a few basics.

First, facts don’t speak for themselves. For facts to matter, they must be framed in terms of their values and their moral importance. They must tell a deeper story that resonates with how people view themselves and the world. Time and again, we have seen facts and policies defeated by lies and frames. This was one of the painful lessons of 2016. Hillary Clinton’s policy accomplishments and plans ran circles around Trump, but the serially-bankrupt reality TV star ended up in the White House.

Second, despite the fact that the pointy heads in policy land say the economy is wonderful, it’s clear that many Americans don’t buy it. Rosy projections from Washington don’t match up with the pain many people feel as they adjust to higher costs for food and other necessities due to inflation. The idea that the economy is doing great doesn’t fit the frame in the brains of people struggling to pay bills and make ends meet. And if a fact doesn’t fit the frame, it bounces right off.

Remember what happened to Sen. John McCain during the 2008 election, when he was pilloried for saying “the fundamentals of the economy are strong” amid the economic devastation of the Great Recession. Sen. Barack Obama retorted: “Senator – what economy are you talking about?"

It’s the same situation with so-called Bidenomics. Poll after poll shows that Americans believe the economy is getting worse, regardless of what the data or the policy wonks say. Biden is unlikely to shift this perception with a slogan.

What’s especially terrible about the Bidenomics slogan is that it makes the president directly responsible for the economy — an economy many Americans view negatively. Bidenomics brands the economic gloom and pain felt by many voters as a direct consequence of Biden’s presidency.

“A glaring weakness for Biden remains the economy, despite signs that it’s doing well and efforts by the White House to promote its accomplishment,” writes the New York Times, noting that only 2% of those polled believe the economy is “excellent.” “Experts say it’s still possible for the president to make a comeback — but when it comes to economic issues, that’s a tough task.”

And even if the economy were doing great, it still might not matter to Trump supporters and swing voters. That’s because people don’t vote for their self interest. Instead, they vote their values. If people only voted on the basis of policies designed to improve their economic circumstances, Hillary Clinton would have been a two-term president. In fact, since the economy historically tends to do better under Democratic presidents, it’s not clear why a Republican would ever stand a chance of winning the presidency.  But these things don’t work according to strict logics based on data and facts.

The economy matters. More important than data and statistics, however, is how people feel about the economy. Numbers can be slow to capture the mood of the average citizen, who tend to become aware of changes and difficulties in their lives before academics notice the trend. When running against an incumbent candidate during a recession, it’s easy to use the economy as a weapon. That’s what Bill Clinton did in 1992, hitting George H.W. Bush with constant attacks best summarized by political consultant James Carville as “it’s the economy, stupid.”

But when you’re the incumbent and people are feeling economic pain, “it’s the economy, stupid” becomes a double-edged sword. Given where things have ended up, it’s clear the adoption of the Bidenomics strategy was unwise. Predictably, it is proving to be a gift to Trump, who can exploit Americans’ perception of economic malaise without having to propose a better policy solution.

The Bidenomics-type frame is exactly the kind of mistake Democrats cannot afford to make when so much is at stake.

What, exactly, is at stake? Nothing less than the future of American freedom. A second Trump term means the end of democracy as we know it. Trump has been open about his plans to defy the rule of law and seize as much power as possible if he gets a second term. The Republican Party has proven it will go along with anything he decides, as long as it means capturing power. A Trump victory in 2024 will be used by Republicans as a mandate to roll back freedom for tens of millions of Americans. Freedom is on the ballot — for women, for people of color, for religious minorities, for LGBT people, for people who like to read books.

Even the very freedom to vote — the freedom at the heart of democracy — will be seriously endangered if Trump regains power. If Trump gets back into the White House, there’s no reason to believe he or his enablers will ever willingly concede power again. The lesson they drew from January 6 was not that insurrection is bad. Instead, they learned that insurrections are bad when they fail. The violent insurrection of Jan. 6 was an attack on freedom — the freedom of American voters to pick their leaders via elections, which is the core freedom that makes all other freedoms possible.

Earlier this year, the Biden campaign appeared to grasp the fundamental importance of the freedom frame. In the official video that launched his reelection campaign, Biden made it clear that freedom would be the central theme of his campaign.

“Freedom,” said Biden in the ad released in April. “Personal freedom is fundamental to who we are as Americans. There’s nothing more important, nothing more sacred.”

As we wrote at the time:

Biden’s ad is powerful because it focuses on the most fundamental American value: freedom. Differences between Democratic and Republican voters are rooted in different moral definitions and values. And of all the values that Americans hold dear, none is more important than that of freedom.

In the ad, Biden portrayed the stakes of the 2024 election as a contest between “more freedom and less freedom." Yet, in usual Democratic political fashion, the president’s campaign team got bored and lost the message. Repetition is the most important element of communications, but you don’t hear President Biden hammering the theme of freedom, making it clear how close we are to the precipice of authoritarianism and spelling out what that will mean. As a result, many voters seem largely unaware that fundamental American freedoms are at stake.

Biden still has time to remind them. Much could happen in the next year, including  criminal convictions for Trump, who faces multiple indictments on a range of serious charges. Convictions will not do much to change the minds of his supporters, but those aren’t the people Biden needs to reach. Instead, Biden — empathetic, honest and moral man — must unite the Democratic base and reach swing voters by making the election a referendum on democracy and freedom.

After all, Democrats just won stunning victories in red-leaning states — Kentucky, Ohio and Virginia — where freedom was on the ballot. Republican attempts to repeal reproductive freedom by banning abortion have clearly backfired, handing stunning victories to Democrats. Abortion is a freedom issue — and so is every other issue on the ballot in 2024.

Biden must make a point of saying it — again and again and again — until no one has a question about the fact that nothing less than American freedom is at stake in next year’s pivotal election. Instead of pinning democracy’s hopes on public perception of an imperfect economy, the Democratic Party’s leaders should bear in mind this simple reminder: It’s the freedom, stupid.

Further reading:

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Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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