In January of 2021, Democrats rode into Washington and took control of the White House and both houses of Congress. President Joe Biden’s approval rating stood at over 53%, and the nation looked hopefully to a leader who promised to restore order and sensibility to American politics. As Biden took the Oath of Office, stocks soared to record highs, investors bullish on a president they believed would bring stability to markets in a post-COVID-19 era. The Republican Party appeared a disgraced organization, and with the events of January 6 top of mind, many contended the Republicans were facing a lost election cycle, as they did in the aftermath of Nixon’s resignation.
Almost two years later, America faces a very different political landscape. As stocks remain below where they were at Biden’s inauguration and economists see a recession as an increasingly likely scenario, economic sentiment has tanked. Biden’s approval rating has dropped more than 10% since taking office and the Democrats face only a 19% chance of retaining both houses of Congress. All of this raises the question: what happened?
Perhaps the primary cause of the Democrats’ fall from grace has been the economy. While external factors, like the war in Ukraine, certainly impacted inflation, continued stimulus spending by Biden after the economy had already begun to recover further exacerbated it. While it’s impossible to pin the blame on any individual, Democrats soured their public image by denying federal spending’s role in boosting inflation, continuing to propose large spending packages even as CPI climbed rapidly.
When Democrats finally decided to act on the impending economic crisis, they passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which despite its name has dubious impacts on short-term inflation. Though the core components of the bill, such as prescription drug cost reductions and tax credits, are useful tools in fighting inflation, the $369 billion in climate spending and $79 billion in funding for the IRS raised many eyebrows. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has projected that the Inflation Reduction Act will have a “negligible effect” on inflation in the coming months and years, calling into question its effectiveness as a policy measure.
Though the Federal Reserve is the entity primarily responsible for controlling inflation, the other parts of the federal government also have an obligation to take actions that aid the Fed’s objectives. Other than the flawed Inflation Reduction Act, however, the Democrats have continued to take reckless actions that compromise the fight against inflation. Most recently, the White House unveiled its plan for student loan relief, which the Congressional Budget Office assessed at a cost of $400 billion.
While high student debt is certainly an issue, canceling $400 billion of debt in the midst of high inflation seems imprudent, as it would likely increase consumer spending, further worsening inflation. Moreover, doing so has been shown to be a regressive tax by income, education and wealth, meaning that the plan will further contribute to disparities in household wealth between college graduates, who typically earn higher salaries, and Americans without college degrees — enigmatic of Democrats’ priorities shifting from their blue collar roots to the more genteel interests of urban elites.
While there are many reasons for the Democratic Party’s fall in popularity, a large share of their troubles are rooted in their detachment from Main Street, pocketbook, kitchen table issues. Though the Democrats of the mid-to-late 20th century were perceived as a blue-collar party in support of working class voters, modern Democrats have struggled to escape their image as an elitist institution.
While it may be easy to dismiss Trump voters as racist or uninformed, the populist movement he created was incredibly powerful. In flipping Blue Wall states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in 2016, he swayed traditionally Democratic voters who felt neglected by a party that had left them behind. Though Biden’s uniting message as a traditional blue-collar Democrat helped the party win back many states in 2020, his rampant spending and perceived pandering to the left wing of his party has reverted the Democrats to the same elitist image he’d hoped to avoid.
In order to regain the image of competency and moderation that Biden embodied upon entering the White House, Democrats need to immediately pivot their strategies behind policy and messaging. The first step they must take is being honest about the state of our economic problems. By first presenting inflation as “transitory” then pinning it on Russian President Vladimir Putin and corporate greed, and now claiming inflation will worsen if Republicans take control of Congress, Biden has lost the trust of the American people and sabotaged opportunities for future bipartisan collaboration. As we likely head into a recession, Americans must be able to look to their president for support in bringing our nation back to a healthy economic state. By refusing to acknowledge his own party’s role in furthering inflation, however, Biden risks continued Democratic runaway spending stalling his ability to curtail inflation.
In addition, Biden needs to exert his authority within the party to rein in the left wing and unite leadership around core policies. As opposed to the GOP, which during the Trump administration voted famously monolithically, Democrats have struggled to keep their agenda reasonable due to the high levels of disagreement between the left and centrist sects of the party. While the Infrastructure Bill was a bipartisan victory, policies like student loan forgiveness have angered many middle-class voters and left the Democrats seeming out of touch.
Finally, Democrats must adjust their messaging to highlight the policy successes they’ve had and the ways in which they’ve bolstered the long-term health of the economy. When asked about how the Democrats could regain their credibility with the American people, Charles Shipan, a professor of political science and the co-author of “The United States Congress,” said that although the “Democratic-led Congress and President Biden have been unusually successful at passing laws, including many that are at the top of their agenda … Democrats talk about them in terms of how much money they’ve allocated to address problems.”
He continued by arguing that Democrats should instead “talk about policies they’ve enacted to help the middle class and … focus on the actual content of the policies and how (they) will help people and stabilize the economy.” Though the Democrats have a significant amount of work to do in order to restructure their party’s priorities, they have succeeded in implementing many policies that help average Americans. By shifting their core messaging toward these achievements, Democrats can not only regain the trust of Americans, but also rebrand their image nationally as they refocus on everyday issues.
Ultimately, while the Democratic Party has lost the trust of many Americans, it remains more redeemable than the GOP. Though their policies have been divisive thus far in Biden’s term, there still remain many Democrats, including the president, who support the party’s traditional working-class identity. If the Democrats can learn to elevate those voices, they might just have a fighting chance at bringing stability to their party and America as a whole.
Nikhil Sharma is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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