Senate Democrats are having trouble getting their message across to voters heading into the 2024 election cycle, when they will have to defend 23 seats.
They say they plan to run on their accomplishments in the last Congress. But that may be a problem: A large majority of voters across the country say President Biden hasn’t gotten a lot done.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll published on Monday found that 62 percent of Americans don’t think Biden has accomplished much during his first two years in office.
Despite passing a major infrastructure investment law in 2021 and prescription drug reform in the Inflation Reduction Act last year, only 32 percent of Americans said Biden made progress improving roads and bridges in their communities and only 30 percent said he made progress lowering prescription drug costs.
“My first reaction is the Democrats have a messaging problem,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University who has served several times as a Senate fellow.
“Certainly the consistent message has been the Schumer message that the accomplishments of the Biden administration are really unprecedented, practically back to the time of the New Deal,” he said. “It is objectively an impressive list, but somehow the public seems to be rejecting that message perhaps because subjectively they’re not seeing the results.”
The disconnect between the Democratic message and voters across the country could make it tougher for Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to persuade incumbents such as Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) to run for new terms in Republican-leaning states.
It could also make it tougher for vulnerable incumbents such as Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) to run on their legislative accomplishments when Republicans are expected to hit them again on topics like inflation and cultural issues.
Monday’s Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 32 percent of independents nationwide think Biden has accomplished a great deal or a good amount while 66 percent said he accomplished not much, little or nothing.
Senate Democrats are putting a more positive spin on the poll, arguing that it shows how much ground they can gain with voters by implementing the bills that Biden signed into law and explaining them to the public.
Aides say Biden will do that on Tuesday evening in his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, when he will highlight the key bills passed since he took office.
Schumer has compared Biden’s first two years in office to President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.
“These two years in the Senate and House, in the Congress, was either the most productive in 50 years — Great Society — or the most productive in 100 years since the New Deal. So I think it’s been extremely, extremely productive,” he told reporters at the end of 2022.
Infrastructure, insulin cap ‘haven’t started yet’
Democratic strategists say their party faces several messaging challenges over the next 21 months: The investments and reforms that Biden signed into law in the 117th Congress will take years to implement, the president himself is not a very compelling salesman and the bills that Biden signed into law will be overshadowed by Washington’s looming political dramas over the debt ceiling and other issues.
Robert Borosage, a progressive activist and co-founder of Campaign for America’s Future, said “the big thing is the big agenda things that Democrats passed haven’t started yet.”
“It’s not surprising that people don’t feel that these policies have affected them yet because they’re just being put in effect,” he said.
For example, a key element of the Inflation Reduction Act, a $35 dollar-a-month cap on insulin, just went into effect on Jan. 1.
Borosage said that inflation and the high cost of everyday goods is giving people a more negative view of the economy than it deserves.
The Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 34 percent of Americans said Biden has made progress creating good jobs in their community, even though the president on Friday touted the creation of 12 million jobs since he took office in 2021.
The economy created 517,000 new jobs last month alone.
Jonathan Kott, a Democratic strategist and former Senate aide, said voters “will start feeling the impacts” of the laws passed in the next Congress before the 2024 elections, such as investments to expand access to high-speed internet and clean drinking water.
“You may not think the infrastructure bill and the IRA are hugely important but when you have clean water and internet access and then you start seeing, ‘Oh right, this is what the Democrats did,’ then it will start to seep in. I think part of it is letting the laws take effect and then explaining, ‘Hey, we did that,’” he said.
Biden needs ‘cheerleaders’
But Kott acknowledged that Biden is not a natural salesman who likes to toot his own horn as much as past presidents, which makes it somewhat tougher to tout his accomplishments.
“Joe Biden, he’s not the type of guy who goes out and brags about his accomplishments, that’s just not who he is. Joe Biden is just a boring get-the-job-done kind of guy. That’s who he is. And he’s the type of Democrat that I think a lot of the moderates like because that’s who he is,” he said. “He just sort of puts his head down, finds the solution to a problem and accomplishes it.
“You might need some more cheerleaders out there, and that’s where I think the rest of the administration and outside groups like the AFL-CIO come in and brag on his behalf,” he added.
Democratic aides say there is also frustration among lawmakers with the fleeting attention the media pays to their legislative accomplishments, as news cycle coverage quickly moves to new topics, such as Biden’s handling of classified information, the Chinese surveillance balloon and the partisan battle over raising the debt limit.
Schumer at one point chastised the media for mostly ignoring the Ocean Shipping Reform Act that Biden signed into law in June to speed up the supply chain and fight inflation.
A few months after Congress passed the bill, the price of shipping a container over the ocean dropped 60 percent, one Democratic aide noted.
A second Democratic aide said the White House is aware of Biden’s problems getting his record of accomplishment across to voters and plans to deploy the president aggressively over the coming months to hammer home his message.
Biden appeared with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) at the Brent Spence Bridge in Covington, Ky., last month to highlight funding for it in the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill. Biden visited a deteriorating rail tunnel in Baltimore a few weeks later to talk about $4 billion in federal funding being invested to keep trains running smoothly between Washington and Philadelphia.
The president and Schumer visited the Long Island Railroad west side train yard last week to promote $292 million in grants from the bipartisan infrastructure bill to rebuild the rail tunnel connecting New Jersey and Manhattan.
“I think Biden’s actually doing a better job of staying on message. I think the White House understands the disconnect with voters in a way the Obama [administration] didn’t, which is why I think you saw the Brent Spence Bridge event,” said the second aide. “I think they recognize the problem.”