Franklin D. Roosevelt, scion of one of the wealthiest families in American history, was worth about \$67 million in today’s dollars. He attended the prestigious Groton boarding school, Harvard College and Columbia Law. He was relatable to the masses despite his privileged background. In the words of a PBS documentary, he was “a patrician who spoke the language of the dispossessed.”
Bill Clinton, on the other hand, had every tool he needed in order to connect with ordinary voters. He grew up poor in rural Arkansas with his mother and abusive alcoholic stepfather. When he ran for president, he was the lowest-paid governor in America, not even bringing in \$40,000 a year. He deployed the common touch he picked up via his background during his successful election campaign.
As president, however, he succumbed to the D.C. bubble, initially prioritized the right of gays to serve in the military and pushed a convoluted health care plan and disastrous trade deals like NAFTA that devastated what was left of the industrial Midwest. He won two terms at the expense of a future realignment; his cluelessness and cruelty planted seeds of frustration and rage that blossomed with the election of Donald Trump over Clinton’s wife. The Rust Belt, once a bastion of union-aligned Democrats, shifted into the Republican column in part because a president who grew up poor forgot where he came from while a later one who grew up rich convinced folks in flyover country that he felt their pain.
You don’t have to be a member of the proletariat to earn their trust. You have to show them that you understand their problems.
Because Democrats are failing to do that, they are headed toward disaster in the 2022 midterm elections.
Gen. David Petraeus wanted to “flood the zone” with American troops in Iraq. The same strategy is generally effective in electoral politics — bombard the airwaves and print with a steady torrent of consistent, on-brand, compelling messaging that sets the agenda for political discussion and forces your adversary to respond, thus unwittingly reinforcing your framing of issues and proposed solutions. Trump was a master at this. He would say or propose something dramatic or outrageous on Monday but by the time Democrats settled upon and began disseminating their counter-spin on Tuesday, Trump was onto the next act that would dominate the news cycle.
The Biden administration is a messaging vacuum.
President Joe Biden hardly holds any press conferences. He delivers few prime-time televised speeches. Messaging, when it happens, is outsourced to social media, press secretary Jen Psaki, allies and surrogates. Republicans and their media allies fill the vacuum; Democrats enable conservative framing by comparing themselves to former and possibly future President Trump.
When it comes to voters’ top concerns, the White House’s instinct is to ignore or deflect.
Americans tell pollsters they’re more worried about inflation than any other issue, followed by immigration and the COVID pandemic. Both Democrats and Republicans say the economy is getting worse.
But voters aren’t hearing much about those issues from Democrats. Biden is instead focused on Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, defending a drug treatment program that Republicans claim would distribute free crack pipes at taxpayer expense and complaining that the GOP is blocking his nominees to the Federal Reserve Board.
Guess how many people care about the Fed nominations.
Voters support Biden’s Ukraine policy, which boils down to stern disapproval coupled with more sanctions. But they need to hear about inflation. They need the administration to stop trying to change the subject to job creation: “If you can’t remember another year when so many people went to work in this country, there’s a reason: It never happened,” Biden said last week. He’s right. It has never been easier to find a job or to demand a raise. But what good is a raise that gets eaten up by inflation?
People need to hear, as they did during Roosevelt’s fireside chats, that the president recognizes the issues that afflict their lives. They need the president to explain what’s going on and hear a list of credible actions he is undertaking to fix those problems. Unfortunately for the Democrats, neither the president nor leading officials are doing that.
No wonder his approval numbers continue to decline. A CBS/YouGov poll showed that 58% of Americans said that Biden wasn’t focusing enough on the economy; 65% said this about inflation. Only 33% said that Biden and the Democrats are focusing on issues they care about most.
When he does deign to discuss inflation, the president appears out of touch. In December, he said inflation had peaked and would soon start to decline. He passed the buck to the Fed in January, saying that dealing with rising prices was their job. He accepted reality in early February, saying, “We have been using every tool at our disposal.” Yet inflation continues to rage. If the White House has been doing everything it can, or perhaps more precisely everything it can think of, and prices keep going up, voters will naturally draw the conclusion that help is not on the way, at least not from the Democrats.
It is understandable for the president to focus on a major foreign-policy crisis. But obsessing over the fate of a country that is not a traditional ally, has little history of shared values with the United States and falls under the sphere of influence of another superpower is politically dangerous, particularly when it comes at the expense of economic issues close to home.
Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.”