Many on the periphery of the President’s reelection campaign have been fretting that Bidenomics is not doing the job of reversing troubling polling numbers. Yes, President Biden passed landmark programs in microchips, manufacturing infrastructure, and clean energy. But none of this has given voters a great deal of confidence in his ability to manage the economy. (Not that Presidents actually “manage” a $27 trillion economy, but the illusion of control exists, for better or worse.)
Apparently, this fretting is not having much effect. A December 20 Wall Street Journal headline read: “President Sticks to ‘Bidenomics’ Message Despite 2024 Campaign Worries.”
Bidenomics’ political impotency can be traced back to a number of sources. Here are two possibilities, one fairly obvious and one less so.
The obvious failing is not distinguishing between the political impacts of micro vs. macro effects and long vs. short time horizons. Pretty much everyone in the country is hit with the big macro problem of inflation, and many are hit with a knock-on effect, high interest rates. And those problems are here and now.
Most of Bidenomics, however, focuses on specific industries that will expand in specific geographical areas, creating good jobs for a small share of the national population sometime in the future. “Maybe someday, if I move to a new city, I’ll get a job in one of the new semiconductor fabrication facilities. But geez, the price of groceries is just killing me today.”
The less obvious failing goes back to a lesson I learned from local political guru Bob Gogerty: you can’t beat a negative with a positive. Positive messages about job growth and competitiveness cannot, by themselves, overcome the negatives of inflation and high interest rates.
I learned this when working on the campaign for what is now Lumen Field, for which Bob was chief strategist. All the messaging in the world about the wonderfulness of sports would be useless if people think they are being taxed unfairly. Once the messaging about taxes got through (no general taxes are used to pay for the stadium), the campaign could air gauzy ads showing families playing touch football. I recall that about two thirds of the ad buys were focused on the “no new taxes” message.
This idea is consistent with the “loss-aversion” principle in behavioral economics: most people place greater value on losses than on equivalent gains. We tend to focus more energy on avoiding bad things than we do on gaining good things. So the unemployed worker getting a job in a new solar panel factory will still focus on the frustrations of inflation, even if their new higher wages will more than make up for higher prices.
The Gogerty Axiom is that you minimize or mitigate the negatives before attempting to sell the positives. Ignoring the negatives in the economy—or, worse, telling voters they are misperceiving those negatives—and trying to generate excitement about the programs in Bidenomics is a risky messaging strategy.
Team Joe can only hope that with inflation moderating, voters will get used to the new price levels and come to appreciate that prices are stabilizing. If recent reports are accurate, interest rates will begin to fall next year. With enough good economic news, voters might be receptive to hearing about roads, bridges, and high-speed internet.