Democrats are saying, “It’s [still] the economy, stupid!”

 /  Feb. 28, 2023, 2:50 p.m.

Congressman Tim Ryan
Congressman Tim Ryan, who was interviewed by The Gate

President Biden’s State of the Union address on Feb. 7 brought to the forefront a number of hot-button issues, among them the salient question of cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and the backlash Biden received from a number of Republicans, who protested his handling of Social Security and Medicare, along with topics like immigration.

Nevertheless, what made up the bulk of Biden’s speech was economic issues working-class Americans are facing, suggesting that Biden, in his likely bid for re-election, intends to focus on highlighting what Democrats hope will be a time of economic resurgence.

This messaging strategy is not only being employed by Pres. Biden, however: a number of Democratic candidates from the 2022 Congressional and Senatorial midterm races invoked similar rhetoric during their races, in hopes of garnering support from disillusioned working-class voters.

Liberal Populism and the Dignity of Work

Biden’s State of the Union address opened by painting a picture of the United States economy entering the beginning stages of recovery.

“Two years ago, the economy was reeling,” Pres. Biden opened his speech. “I stand here tonight after we’ve created, with the help of many people in this room, 12 million new jobs, more jobs created in two years than any president has created in four years, because of you all, because of the American people.”

In his address, Biden then pointed to his own legislative achievements, including the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act. He cited a 50-year low in unemployment rates, a $300 billion investment in American manufacturing jobs from the CHIPS Act, and a record 10 million Americans applying to start small businesses. He also committed to exclusively buying American for future federal infrastructure projects. Biden, in the State of the Union, referred to his economic plan as the “blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America.”

Biden also addressed some of his speech directly to the people he believes have been left behind: the working and middle class. He expressed regret that manufacturing jobs have moved overseas, leading to many cities and towns becoming “shadows of what they used to be.”

“Too many people have been left behind and treated like they’re invisible. Maybe that’s you watching from home,” Pres. Biden said. “Remember the jobs that went away–you remember them, don’t you? Folks at home remember them. You wonder whether the past even exists anymore for your children to get ahead without having to move away.”

Biden then pledged to create “an economy where no one is left behind,” committing to continuing to support working and middle-class Americans.

Biden’s spoken commitment to working for the middle- and working-class and rejecting elitism, along with his commitment to bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., may rightly be termed a sort of ‘liberal populism.’ But, as a POLITICO article from July 2021 about his executive orders attempting to quash monopolies points out, Biden has been laying this groundwork throughout his term. His efforts have included allowing over-the-counter sale of hearing aids, protecting the wages of meat-packing workers, and even his earlier decision to waive intellectual property rights for the COVID-19 vaccine during the pandemic.

Biden’s State of the Union address touched on another important piece–the dignity of work, a term popularized by Ohio Congressman Sherrod Brown, who defines the idea as “the belief that hard work should pay off for everyone, no matter who you are or what kind of work you do.”

As such, Biden seems poised to continue messaging and legislation focused on working-class, economic concerns in the second half of his term.

Democrats Focus on Economic Issues in the 2022 Midterm Elections

Pres. Biden is not the only Democrat whose priorities seem to be focused on economic issues, however. A number of Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections, particularly those in swing districts and states, garnered support from working-class voters with a targeted focus on issues like job creation, while remaining more moderate on polarizing issues like gun control and reproductive choice.

Former Congressman Tim Ryan, in a close bid for Ohio’s Senate seat which he lost by only six points to J.D. Vance, utilized many of these strategies.

In an interview with The Gate, Ryan said that he is “trying to be a working-class Democrat that pulls economic voters from all parts.”

Ryan’s strategy is not new for him, however: in a 2022 interview from The New York Times discussing his political career, Jazmine Ulloa writes that Ryan has been climbing an uphill battle for the Democratic Party, attempting to combat the “lingering appeal of Trumpism and the erosion of support for the party among the white working-class voters who once formed a loyal part of its base in the industrial heart of the country.”

Ryan’s rhetoric is in line with Biden’s State of the Union, though Ryan also addressed the delicate balance he (and other working-class Democrats in swing states) must strike when talking about potentially polarizing political issues like reproductive choice. This is particularly relevant because, according to 2021 polls from Pew Research Center, Republicans appear to be more united over social issues than over economic matters, and traditionally see success in focusing on social issues.

“I wouldn’t say Democrats in Ohio can’t touch [abortion], I just would say they can’t lead with it. 70% of the state is just trying to make ends meet,” he said.

Other Democrats are making similar efforts. Congresswoman Mary Peltola (D-AK) ran a successful campaign using the slogan “Fish, Family, Freedom,” focusing on the economic issues her constituents are facing.

“The health of our fisheries determines the health of many of our Alaska communities. Keeping them from collapsing is my top priority for that exact reason,” Peltola said in a Tweet on Feb. 4. Peltola’s campaign efforts were rewarded with a ten-point win, with economic issues appearing to be the driving force.

Another 2022 Democratic winner was Congresswoman Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (D-WA), who narrowly beat Trump-backed Joe Kent and won a largely middle-class district. Perez, too, stressed Democrats’ need to focus on the middle class, who feel “like people don’t understand the issues we’re facing,” citing issues like supply chain problems, infrastructure, and catalytic converter theft.

Like Ryan, Perez has stressed her desire to be a working-class Democrat for her constituency. In an interview with POLITICO, Perez said, “I don’t think that your traditional pedigreed Democrats are the solution to Trump extremism. I think that a lot of these traditional Democrats, the m.o. is to go into a community and start explaining s***. Nobody likes that. I’ve heard that so often: I’ll go to an urban community, and people will be like, ‘Oh, like this candidate was amazing. They are so smart.’ And then I’ll go to a rural community and talk to them about the same candidate. And they’ll say: ‘Yeah, they’re pedantic and they don’t understand. They didn’t listen to us.’”

A New Political Moment

Economic and working-class issues are certainly not a new messaging strategy, but Biden’s State of the Union seems to suggest that we are experiencing a radically different political environment than even two years ago. COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests and conversations around race during the summer of 2020 held much of the political focus, allowing social debates to take center stage in 2020.

However, following a year filled with concerns over inflation and high gas prices, rising prescription drug costs, and the fight to raise the debt ceiling, recent Gallup polls find that economic issues are a forefront issue. Though economic issues have decreased as Americans’ biggest concern in recent months, the percentage of Americans concerned about the economy remains the highest it has been since around 2016. 

Not only that, but research from the Center for American Progress Action Fund has found that “union members voted for the Democratic Party candidate in much greater proportions than did nonunion members, cementing Joe Biden’s win over former President Donald Trump.” The Harvard Business Review found similar results: “The percentage of white working class men voting Democratic increased from 23% in 2016 to 28% in 2020, while among white working class women, support for Democrats increased from 34% to 36%. These voters played a key role in delivering victories for Biden in the Rust Belt states where Clinton lost the presidency in 2016.”

As a result, it is no surprise that Pres. Biden–and a host of other Democratic politicians–are attempting to gain support from unions and highlighting the economy as one of the biggest concerns to focus on for the present–and the future.

Democrats’ Recommendations for 2024

Biden’s State of the Union seems to suggest that economic issues will be the driving force for Democrats in the 2024 Presidential election, in addition to the 2024 Senatorial and Congressional races.

Tim Ryan offered a similar diagnosis when asked what he learned from his own experience in a swing state.

“I think the main message has to be on the economy,” Ryan said. “It needs to be focused on jobs, wages, and pensions, bread-and-butter economic issues that people in the Midwest–and throughout the country–are concerned about. Wherever you go, when you look at what has happened to the middle class and the concentration of wealth over the past 30 to 40 years, and you see that average families aren’t getting their piece of the pie, it breeds a lot of anxiety and anger, a lot of contempt for the elites who have benefited from the system. I think focusing on economics can help [Democrats] play anywhere.”

Ryan said he is hopeful that such a focus will be effective for Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) who is up for re-election in 2024.

“I think he will be able to repeat a lot of the crossover I was able to get, with a presidential year voter turnout,” Ryan told The Gate. “People like Sherrod, and they trust him. I think it will also depend on the dynamics in two years: what the economy looks like, whether there is a recession, what gas prices are, etc. Sherrod will have the message on trade and economy, and he has that brand already.”

Ryan also pointed to touting Biden’s legislative achievements as a touchpoint for future Democratic campaigns.

“The accomplishments of the last year, though they haven’t hit yet, are relevant: the CHIPS bill, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act, which was a promotion of everything from renewable and wind and solar to natural gas. That’s where Democrats need to be,” Ryan said. “I think they have to hit first, though. People need to be working, building a CHIPS manufacturing facility, building bridges. So that someone can point to it and say, ‘I work there. That’s what I do.’”

In the meantime, however, Ryan worries about one major roadblock for Democrats in states like Ohio, even with a united base focusing on the economy: the allocation of resources from the Democratic Party. Ryan himself said he was disappointed in the disinvestment of Democrats from Ohio, and instead the shift in focus to battleground states like Pennsylvania and Michigan.

“In other states, there is a concerted effort to touch and reach rural voters and faith-based groups from outside Democratic groups, but they don’t do that in Ohio, so we get crushed in the rural parts of the state” Ryan remarked. “There’s huge turnout operations that the Senate Majority PAC did in Pennsylvania that they did not do in Ohio. And that has been consistent for the past four or five years since Trump knocked down the blue wall. Democrats have been trying to rebuild the blue wall, but they see that as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, in addition to efforts with Mark Kelly in Arizona and the runoff in Georgia. Again, it’s rural advertisements and faith-based advertisements, saying ‘I root for Hershel Walker. I will pray for Hershel Walker, but I will not vote for Hershel Walker.’”

It will be left to see what strategies Democratic candidates will utilize in the 2024 elections: whether they will continue on an economy-focused route, or whether they will turn to more partisan issues like abortion, gun control, or Jan. 6 and election denialism. But it seems many working-class Democrats are advocating for a return to Democratic political consultant James Carville’s 1992 adage: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

The image featured in this article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Gage Skidmore and can be found here.

Molly Morrow


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