House Democrats push Biden to build a better midterm message
By Jonathan Martin
After offering her customary lavish praise of President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi got to the business at hand at a White House meeting last month on the midterm elections.
Democrats, Pelosi told Biden and a group of his aides, need a more succinct and consistent message. The speaker, who has long been fond of pithy, made-for-bumper-sticker mantras, offered a suggestion she had heard from members: Democrats deliver.
What Pelosi did not fully detail that February evening was that some of her party’s most politically imperiled lawmakers were revolting against Biden’s preferred slogan, “Build back better,” believing it had come to be a toxic phrase that only reminded voters of the party’s failure to pass its sweeping social policy bill. And what the president and his advisers did not tell the speaker was that they had already surveyed “Democrats deliver” with voters — and the response to it was at the bottom of those for the potential slogans they tested, according to people familiar with the research.
No new campaign message was agreed to that day — or since. Biden is now absorbed by the war in Europe. Facing the biggest foreign policy crisis of his presidency, he is hardly consumed with the looming midterm elections, let alone trying to devise a catchy slogan. Still, his advisers acknowledge that the crisis in Ukraine presents a chance for a reset, perhaps the president’s best opportunity to restore his standing before November.
Democrats are pleading with him to come up with a sharper message. With inflation hitting another 40-year high and gas prices spiking because of a boycott on Russian oil, they remain angst-ridden about their prospects in the fall, in large part because the president’s approval ratings remain in the 40s, and lower in some pivotal states, even after a recent bump.
Democrats who once thought the key to their political success would be beating back the pandemic and restoring the economy are deflated to find that falling coronavirus positivity rates and rising employment numbers — and even foreign policy leadership — have barely moved public opinion.
“The economy is strong, and America is once again leading in freedom’s fight against tyranny,” said Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn. “But we all know that politics isn’t predicated on what’s real, rather on how people feel.”
Republicans have plenty of their own divisions over message — and messengers. As long as former President Donald Trump retains his grip on the party, Democrats have a chance to remind up-for-grabs voters what is at stake this year and beyond.
Still, White House aides acknowledge the pressure to revamp their strategy. They have been frustrated by how little credit they have received for enacting major legislation such as the COVID-19 relief bill or bipartisan infrastructure legislation.
“You tell them about the American Rescue Plan, and they say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’” Biden, in a burst of candor, said at the House Democratic retreat Friday, alluding to the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 measure he signed a year ago that is but a dim memory for most voters.
The president’s advisers point to the State of the Union address — which emphasized pragmatism over bold progressive goals — as a blueprint for his message in coming months and note that, according to their research, cutting drug costs was among the most popular proposals in the speech.
They also are considering a handful of executive orders that would please their base, on matters including the cancellation of some student loan debt, and are determined to enact legislation lowering the costs of prescription drugs, according to Democrats familiar with his plans.
Some Democrats say they have been cheered by signs that the White House and particularly chief of staff Ron Klain are now focused on inflation after initially arguing last year that the increase was transitory. During a recent meeting with a group of House Democrats, Klain resisted a request to spend more federal dollars aiding restaurants, in part because it could be seen as adding to inflationary pressures, according to an official at the meeting.
To the relief of Democrats in Congress, the White House is dropping the “Build back better” catchphrase. The administration is also attempting to pin the blame on President Vladimir Putin of Russia for rising gas prices, hoping it will at least dilute Republican attacks over the issue.
Biden’s midterm priorities are not taking a back seat to the war in Ukraine, the White House insists. Senior officials acknowledge that they regret their all-consuming focus on the Afghanistan withdrawal last summer, and as one said, they will not let the West Wing “become a bunker” at the expense of domestic politics.
Democrats are counting on it.
Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado, a Democrat who is on the ballot this fall, said he had privately urged Biden to put reducing consumer costs at the center of his agenda.
“The president and the administration need to be attentive to the difficulties that real people are facing in the real world,” Polis said, recounting his message to the president on a phone call with other governors last month. “He’s a good listener. It’s just a matter of how it gets translated into policies, and we haven’t seen that yet from the White House.”
Other prominent Democrats have also privately voiced discontent to Biden. Those ranks include Democrats who may also run for president and some who already have. Speaking to a friend last month, Hillary Clinton expressed concern that Biden was not offering a compelling narrative to voters about his presidency, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
In addition to Biden’s policy plans, his advisers say they are taking steps to focus more aggressively on the election and on building goodwill with restive lawmakers.
Biden officials said the president and Vice President Kamala Harris had both stepped up their fundraising efforts for the Democratic National Committee in February, engaging major donors in one-on-one video conversations that had bolstered the committee’s coffers. There are discussions about expanding the White House political operation by dispatching a senior adviser, Cedric Richmond, to the DNC, which administration aides are frustrated with.
Also, in hopes of quieting grumbles about Biden’s lack of engagement, his advisers say they plan to open up the White House to lawmakers, hosting them at the White House movie theater and bowling alley and reviving popular events like the Easter Egg Roll and West Wing tours.
Nowhere is there more alarm in the party ranks than among House Democrats, many of whom have long felt that Biden and his aides, with their decades of service in the Senate, were overly focused on the other chamber.
Most outspoken are incumbents facing difficult elections.
One of them, Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., had been privately pushing party leaders to salvage some elements of the sweeping social welfare legislation that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., appeared to have torpedoed at the end of last year. Slotkin’s idea: Hold a summit-style gathering with House and Senate leaders and find consensus.
That did not happen. Pelosi did hold a meeting in her office last month with Slotkin and other Democrats from competitive districts. The gathering devolved into a session of griping about the White House and pleas with the speaker to tell Biden to stop using the phrase “Build back better.”
Slotkin declined to discuss private conversations but was blunt about her exasperation. “It would be helpful if the White House, the Senate and the House were all on the same page on those priorities,” she said.
Asked if she was happier after the State of the Union, she shot back, “Words are good; deeds are better.”
Some of her colleagues are voting with their feet: 31 House Democrats have said they will not run for reelection, the highest number in the caucus since 1992.
Not all of the ire is aimed at Biden. Lawmakers view Pelosi as a political force but a de facto lame duck who is all but certain to join the exodus if Republicans reclaim the majority. They complain that they have received little guidance from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has sought to mollify members by talking up better-than-expected results from the redistricting process.
The new maps, though, are little comfort to lawmakers like Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., a poster child for the anguish of congressional Democrats.
Titus sought an ambassadorship but did not get one because Democrats could not risk losing her seat. Her district became more competitive through redistricting. She is facing a primary from the left despite her largely progressive record. And she is running in tourism-dependent Nevada, which still has some of the highest unemployment levels in the country.
Biden has set foot in the state only once as president, when he flew in for former Sen. Harry Reid’s funeral.
“They haven’t had time to come up with a plan because every day is some new crisis,” Titus said of the White House. Maybe, she wondered, there is no return to normal in polarized times.
“You get expectations up that you can bring people together, you can negotiate, you got international experience, and then it’s a new world,” she said.
Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., who is also facing a tough reelection campaign, used the same word.
“Let’s manage expectations,” Wild said, conceding that “as a party, we overshot on” the social welfare measure that ran aground with Manchin.
It is hardly just swing-district Democrats who are frustrated. As Biden’s approval rating has taken a significant hit among younger and nonwhite voters, other party leaders are urging him to address the concerns of those constituencies.
Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., said he had called Klain after Biden’s State of the Union speech to relay his alarm that the president had made the case against defunding police without more robustly addressing police misconduct. (White House aides noted that the president had explicitly pledged “to hold law enforcement accountable.”)
Bowman offered this advice for the president: “Speak to more progressive policies, and speak to issues that impact people of color specifically.”
At a closed-door retreat for Senate Democrats that Biden attended Wednesday, Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., pressed the president to cancel student loan debt, according to Democrats in the room.
“Good policy, good politics,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said of wiping away student debt.
That advice, though, is bumping against the concerns of moderate Democrats, who are pushing Biden to pivot to the political center. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., has spearheaded what he calls a “common sense” agenda and shared it with Klain, who was interested in some elements but mostly wanted to know what could pass the Senate.