Biden doesn’t need to pivot right — he needs to turn up the volume on his progressive economic agenda

Since taking office during the peak of the global COVID-19 pandemic, President Biden has steered America through one of the most tumultuous global economic upheavals in modern history. While some economists doubtedBiden and the Democrats’ approach to economic recovery, the long sought-after “soft landing” is within arm’s reach. And yet, after the passage of multiple landmark bills to create new good-paying jobs, fix America’s crumbling infrastructure, and lower health care costs, voters feel negatively about President Biden’s handling of the economy. What gives?

Short answer: Everything is really expensive right now. The last time inflation was as high as it was in 2022, Ronald Reagan was president, and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was the hot new movie. For most Americans, the sticker shock of the past few years has been a particularly unpleasant new experience. 

So, it’s no surprise that even when we tell voters that the rate of inflationis going down and the job market remains incredibly strong, over two-thirds say that the economy is not working for people like them. The rate of inflation may be falling, but the prices of most groceries are higher than they were before the pandemic. Repeating that the economy is great over and over is not enough to clinch the votes necessary for resounding Democratic victories in 2024.

That is why for the past several months, Data for Progress and our partners at the Progressive Campaign Change Committee have been conducting in-depth polling and message testing to understand how Democrats can improve voters’ trust in their handling of the economy.

Some pundits are suggesting that Biden needs to pivot right to win over swing voters. This is misguided. Our polling suggests that voters overwhelmingly support progressive economic ideas, especially those that will rein in corporations and bolster long-standing government programs such as Social Security by making the ultra-wealthy pay their fair share. It’s not that voters are hearing Democrats’ ambitious economic ideas and rejecting them — it’s that they aren’t hearing them enough. 

First, we diagnosed the problem: The core tenets of Bidenomics are not breaking through. As Data for Progress and other pollsters have found, many of the Biden administration’s marquee economic policies like preventing junk fees, lowering prescription drug costs, protecting Social Security, and capping out-of-pocket insulin costs all have support from more than 80 percent of voters — but less than 1 in 3 report hearing “a lot” from Biden on these issues. 

However, we also know that we can’t talk about every issue all the time. To break through to voters in a competitive and disjointed media environment, firepower must be strategically directed. So, we dug a bit deeper to understand what formulation of policies is most persuasive to voters when thinking about Democrats’ handling of the economy. In a split sample test, we showed voters three statements touting Democratic lawmakers’ support for a combination of expanding Social Security, taxing billionaires, and fighting big drug companies. Messages that mention Social Security were quite persuasive, but the message combining all three policies increased trust for Democrats in handling the economy by 22 points.

We then tinkered a bit further, layering in just one more policy to the top-performing statement on lowering prescription drug costs, increasing Social Security benefits, and increasing taxes on billionaires. While emphasizing job creation and protecting health care moved the needle, emphasizing Democrats’ fight against junk fees increased Democratic support even further, with independents trusting Democrats over Republicans on the economy by a staggering +25-point margin.

Throughout all of this polling and message testing, one thing became abundantly clear: Social Security needs to be front-of-mind for voters in 2024. While 90 percent of voters support protecting Social Security funding, only 20 percent have heard Biden talk “a lot” about the issue. Meanwhile, we also find that voters do not perceive a difference between Biden and Trump on the issue: Independents are nearly split on whether Biden or Trump is more likely to protect Social Security, and voters without a college degree choose Trump by a 6-point margin. Despite Republican presidential candidates citing their plans to raise the retirement age and overhaul the Social Security system, when asked if they think Republicans would follow through on cutting Social Security, a plurality of voters think they would not. 

Given these muddied waters, Democrats should ensure that Social Security is a top issue in the 2024 election by embracing a popular policy that Republicans — even a self-declared billionaire like Trump — will fight. Specifically, taxing the wealthiest Americans to increase funding for Social Security has bipartisan support, with 79 percent support among independents and 80 percent support among voters without a college degree. When voters understand that Democrats will expand Social Security by taxing billionaires, they trust Democrats over Republicans on the economy by +12 points. But when they hear that Republicans will do the opposite, that support increases to a +23-point margin.

We know that there will be many issues voters consider when heading to the voting booth, including reproductive freedom and threats to our democracy, which have loomed large in the 2022 and 2023 elections. However, we also know that given the acute economic pain Americans have felt over the past few years, President Biden and Democrats must tell a compelling narrative to voters as to how their policy agenda is helping America turn a corner. 

Turning up the volume on key issues is certainly one component of this plan. But as these findings make clear, Democrats must also intentionally draw contrasts and go on offense with the actors who are thwarting their overwhelmingly popular policy agenda, like the Republicans who continue to threaten cuts to Social Security and Medicare or the drug companies that filed lawsuits to stop drug price negotiations. While Trump’s policy failures may be a distant memory to some voters, showcasing Democrats’ legislative victories with “split screens” as the Biden campaign has smartly been doing is one great way to get voters to tune back in. 

In today’s media environment where voters are pulled in myriad directions, it’s not enough for Democrats to just remind voters what they are for — they also have to remind voters who’s working against them.

Danielle Desieroth is the executive director of Data for Progress.

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