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Opinion: Biden needs to steal a page from the Reagan playbook


Opinion by Julian Zelizer

(CNN) — Republicans are hammering away at President Joe Biden over his economic record. Despite good news that has been reported in recent weeks, including low unemployment, a revived stock market and apparently receding inflation, the GOP is attempting to deny Biden any credit for the economy in the 2024 presidential campaign.

On the same day that fresh inflation data showed that prices continued to cool down, Republicans seized on the headline that the Consumer Price Index rose 3.2% in July compared to where it had been last year, the first time there had been an uptick in 13 months. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy sent out a press release warning that the president’s “anti-energy policies” were resulting in higher gasoline costs. “With gas prices soaring, millions across the country are struggling once again to fill up their tanks and make ends meet,” the press release stated.

The dire statements ignore the details in the data. While it is true that gas prices have risen from an average of $3.54 a gallon last month to $3.82 today, they remain lower than $4.01 a year ago. The annual “core” inflation index, for instance, is 4.7%, lower than June’s 4.8%. The cost of airfare, new and used cars and electricity all fell in the past month.

Inflation has declined from its peak of 9.1% a year ago. More economists are coming to believe that the nation will have a “soft landing” after the Federal Reserve’s rate hikes. And all of this comes after a global pandemic literally shut down our national economy.

While inflation briefly spiked to levels not seen since the 1970s, the economy under Biden has never been as bad as it was in the 1970s or early 1980s.

But Biden and his fellow Democrats should not take the rhetoric lightly. The messages coming from the GOP can be effective. Focusing on problems, while ignoring the bigger picture, often works well in politics. Recent polls from CNN and the Associated Press show that Americans disapprove of how the president is handling the economy and feel that conditions will get worse. CNN’s poll found that 51% of those surveyed think the economy is still in a downturn and that things are getting worse. Only 37% of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the economy, even lower than his overall approval rating of 41%. And only 26% of independents approve of Biden’s handling of inflation.

Republicans are going to do everything they can to prevent the president from arguing that “It’s morning again in America,” as President Ronald Reagan famously proclaimed in a 1984 television ad, while coasting to reelection against former Vice President Walter Mondale. Back then, the economy had rebounded after a terrible recession during 1981 and 1982, which came after a long decade of stagflation that left the nation reeling with high unemployment and high inflation.

The commercial was considered to be one of the most powerful in campaign history. In one minute, the spot provided a nostalgic celebration of an America that was back from the brink. In the ad, a man dressed for work gets out of his cab to go to the office, and a young boy delivers newspapers to suburban homes. A boy and his father carry a new carpet into their home, while a young couple smile as they get married. Campers look up at an American flag. The narrator speaks over sentimental music, reviewing all the good news happening in the country under Reagan’s presidency.

“Our country is prouder and stronger and better,” the commercial proclaims. “Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”

Much of the burden to make a similar case to Americans today will fall on Biden himself. He can’t expect the nation to simply agree with his point of view nor can he assume that most voters will be able to parse through the data to see that the situation is much better than what McCarthy and others in the GOP are claiming. He must also be sensitive to the very real pain and anxiety many Americans feel. Biden’s tendency to avoid the spotlight, which has often been a source of strength when compared to former President Donald Trump’s bombast, can be, in this case, a great weakness.

The president needs to keep making a stronger case to the public, an effort he has been devoting more time to in recent months. As the election heats up, he needs to talk about what’s working well in the economy in contrast to the doom Republicans are trying to sell. This means more connecting the dots between programs that Congress has passed during his tenure, and benefits that Americans are experiencing, such as high rates of employment.

In the same way that Reagan connected “Reaganomics” — tax cuts and deregulation — to economic revival, the president and Democrats need to demonstrate the positive impact of “Bidenomics.” Under his policies, new factories are being opened that are hiring workers, and billions have been invested in clean energy. Supply chains are up and running, and small businesses are recovering from the depths of the pandemic. States, red and blue, are using federal money to make vital upgrades to the infrastructure we all rely on.

In other words, Biden needs to tap into the playbook of Reagan, who understood that the ability for a president to sell his message is integral to political success. Framing the conversation can be a pivotal part of how elections are won or lost.

For all the attention being paid to Trump’s multiple indictments, the economy will remain at the very top of the list in terms of what is likely to bring Biden or his Republican opponent victory on Election Day. Based on the polling, unless the president does a better job of explaining, he will face an electorate that continues to see red when it comes to how he is doing with their bottom line.

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