Polls show voters have more confidence in Joe Biden than Donald Trump on every key issue except the economy, where the president’s strength has Democrats worried that Biden could be falling into the same trap as Hillary Clinton by not running robustly enough on jobs.
The Democratic convention’s focus on social justice issues deepened concerns among nervous Dems that history might repeat itself with another searing loss as the GOP hammered home its message of law and order. You’d think Biden was down eight points, not up.
“The race is totally unchanged,” pollster Stan Greenberg assured me as he was putting the finishing touches on his report of the dial groups that he ran at the two conventions. “People have deeply developed views of the candidates, Trump, and the two parties.”
He said a shift among working-class whites, men and women, toward Biden was reinforced by the convention, as was Democratic unity. Over 90 percent of Bernie Sanders’ voters support Biden; that number was 70 percent in 2016 for Hillary. “He accomplished important things at the convention, but I do believe he has important economic work to do,” Greenberg added, getting to the meat of why I called him.
“People are looking for major changes. The corona pandemic is a health-care crisis, and it leads people to want big headway on health care and the economy. So people are looking for much more on what his economic policies are and particularly on health care. People are watching closely.”
In 2016, Greenberg was writing memos to the Hillary camp, his hair on fire, urging a greater focus on the economy for the working-class voters he once dubbed Reagan Democrats. Reminded how agitated he was then, he replies with a laugh, “There’s more he has to be doing but not with my hair on fire, more because he needs the biggest possible wave against Trump. There are more gains to be made. I’m not critical (of what Biden is doing).”
He points out that middle class Joe from Scranton has “positioned himself very differently than Hillary,” who was seen as too close to Wall Street. All those high dollar, closed-door speeches to Goldman Sachs and other high-rollers undermined her credibility.
Finally, Greenberg says Trump didn’t make any headway on law and order in the dials that he ran during the GOP convention. “People are living a COVID health-care and economic crisis. The structure of the race is very stable, and people have very strong views developed over four years. The law and order and racist campaign is likely to backfire.”
Jared Bernstein was Biden’s economic adviser in the Obama White House and is now an outside adviser to the Biden campaign. He says there is some evidence that Trump’s advantage on the economy is closing, and a Quinnipiac poll this week did find Biden tied with Trump 48-48 on who is better on handling the economy.
On Election Day, says Bernstein, Trump won’t have the “super V-shaped recovery” he boasts about. Bernstein expects it will be K-shaped, leaving behind the bottom half, whose unequal place in the economy is helping fuel civil unrest.
It’s hard to separate out an economic message from “the overarching message that there needs to be a grownup in charge to get control of the virus, because there’s no sustained or robust recovery without that,” says Bernstein. He cites Biden’s call for a testing and tracing job corps of 100,000, with its echoes of JFK’s Peace Corps and Clinton’s AmeriCorps.
Bernstein describes Biden’s economic plan as a “one, two, three punch.” It begins with controlling the virus, then “finishing the bridge to recovery” Congress started, which Biden has done before as chief implementer of the Recovery Act under Obama. Then building an economy that finally connects people from all walks of life to overall growth. That means a clean fuel economy, expanded affordable health care, subsidized childcare and elder care, and free college for families earning under $125,000.
It all sounds pretty idyllic. Can Biden sell it in a way that inspires Obama-level turnout?
“Trump is a master at convincing people of the alternate reality he wants us to see,” says Heidi Schierholz with the Economic Policy Institute. “This is what the Democrats are up against. And some of it is true–the economy is coming back–but we’re still down almost 13 million jobs.”
She does the numbers. In March and April, we lost 22.2 million jobs. In May, June and July, we added 9.3 jobs. That means we’re down 12.9 million—more jobs lost than in the entire Great Recession of 2008-09, even though we’ve added over 9 million jobs. “We are still in wholly unprecedented territory,” she says.
UPDATE: The August jobs numbers announced Friday morning show 1.4 million jobs added, which means we're still 11.5 million jobs in the hole since the virus hit.
Trump wants voters to judge him on 9 million jobs gained in the last three months, gains that Schierholz thinks are slowing now that the most critical jobs are back. Workers in jobs that require a lot of social contact—restaurants, bars, personal services and tourism, will continue to take a hit.
She likes Biden’s policies, an economy that has childcare and elder care, expands affordable health care, focuses on education and infrastructure and climate mitigation. And she thinks the outcome in November depends on getting out the vote for Biden, not trying to persuade Trump voters, a futile task in her view. Like most progressives, she thinks victory lies in motivating people who might not vote—“but if they vote, they would vote for Biden.” That’s who Biden needs to mobilize.
Rob Shapiro worked on Bill Clinton’s campaign and served as undersecretary of commerce for economic affairs during his administration. Asked if the Biden campaign is making a mistake in not putting more emphasis on economic proposals, Shapiro says, “There has to be a point where they highlight it, which Hillary never did. They (Hillary campaign) had a demographic-driven strategy, and it didn’t include the economy. The reason it was so damaging to Hillary to ignore the economy, her weakness was that she seemed uncaring of working people. She has that underlying elitist attitude, and she couldn’t hide it. Joe doesn’t have that. Caring about the economy is a central way of saying ‘I care about you,’ and Joe has that locked down.”