If you read the right-wing media these days, you're probably convinced that the U.S. economy is in free fall. Out of control inflation! Gas lines from the 1970s! Weak jobs numbers! Republicans are rolling out their timeless playbook: trashing the country on the way out, demanding austerity from Democrats trying to clean up the mess, and then blaming spending for everything. Meanwhile, the Biden White House's communications team is operating with all the urgency of a retirement community Bingo tournament director. The president and his advisers need to learn the art of self-promotion from the Trump administration, and take control of this narrative before it sets in.
If there's one thing you have to give Trump some begrudging credit for, it's the relentless trumpeting (sorry) of his administration's accomplishments, real or imagined. Hardly a day passed prior to the pandemic without the former president grabbing his Twitter megaphone and bragging about the economy, or the stock market, or jobs numbers, or his incredible reworking of NAFTA, or his groundbreaking diplomacy with Little Rocket Man. Every time the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit a new high during his administration, Trump was there to make sure we knew about it and to take credit for it.
While social scientists don't think the president is some kind of economic puppet master capable of single-handedly dragging the country out of a recession, it is true that presidents are judged on things like unemployment numbers and stock market trajectories, for better or for worse. In the pre-COVID world, those numbers were quite good, and Trump and his team were unapologetic about finding new ways to market them. Remember the record low African-American and Latino unemployment numbers? The "greatest economy in the history of our country"? Democrats scoffed at the hyperbole, but clearly the message got through if Trump's modest gains with those demographics in the 2020 election are to be believed.
As critics constantly pointed out, Trump's "success" here can be mostly chalked up to inheriting a strengthening economy from former President Barack Obama and then not screwing it up. But of course, Trump also took credit for things that literally happened under his predecessor. Beginning in 2018, Trump claimed 156 times to have been responsible for the VA Choice Act, a piece of legislation signed by Obama in 2014. He bragged about an investment in Ford's Michigan plants that was negotiated in 2015. Ditto for a $20 billion ExxonMobil project on the Gulf Coast. Democrats thought the inherent absurdity of these claims would hollow out their impact, but that does not appear to be what happened.
The braggadocio about non-existent achievements bled into Trump's biggest problem, the one that Biden should absolutely not emulate, and that is his relentless divisiveness. For every piece of positive messaging about policy and the economy, Trump spent three times as much energy on attacking people, demonizing the opposition, and waging internecine warfare against Republicans who weren't bending the knee. But there's a happy medium here, and it isn't what the Biden team is doing right now.
Twitter, as we all know, isn't real life, and is inhabited by a disproportionate number of political obsessives and partisan extremists. But it is also where journalists hang out, and is therefore an indispensable tool for shaping the narrative and the news cycle. Whoever is running the Biden Twitter account right now posts around five times a day, sometimes less, sometimes a bit more. The content is anodyne and harmless, and for everyone traumatized by Trump's incessant social media warring, appealingly earnest. He spends a lot of time gently fluffing bills that are stalled in Congress, or thanking whichever entity hosted him that day. "Here's the deal," a recent Tweet intoned. "Trickle-down economics has never worked. It's time to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle out."
Presumably he was referring to the American Jobs Plan, the massive infrastructure and clean energy bill that has yet to make its way out of the House and is currently the subject of contentious negotiations with Republicans. But the way Biden talks about these thing is like there is no opposition in Congress trying to prevent the passage of this legislation, no filibuster rule holding up pretty much his entire agenda in the Senate, no Mitch McConnell grinding everything to a halt with fake promises of bipartisanship. Right now, the president's messaging is the political equivalent of the passive voice. In this story, there are no villains, only heroes, a strategy he deployed to great effect during the campaign and even while the outgoing president was hatching an elaborate plan to install himself as a dictator. But whatever the merits of that play-nice strategy, it has very much outlived its usefulness.
Nothing encapsulates the Biden messaging problem better than those comparisons circulating in the Fox News expanded universe comparing inflation and the price of lumber and housing and other things in May 2021 to May 2020. Newt Gingrich is out there pounding the airwaves with the message that the Democrats are ushering in the economic apocalypse, and the White House can barely muster a response. Like the Obama administration, justifiable contempt for the ugly alternate universe of conservative media is blinding the president and his advisers to what actually happens there and how devastatingly effective it can be. And like too many liberals and progressives, they think that policy victories speak for themselves.
Here's the deal (as Biden would say): The Dow has hit an all-time high in each of the last four months. If there's any truth to the 401k theory of American politics, a lot of people should be pretty happy right now. The economy added 266,000 jobs in April, as opposed to the 20.5 million it lost in April 2020. Yes, the April jobs number was a crushing disappointment to everyone, but do you think that would've stopped Trumpworld? They would have had Larry Kudlow booked on every Sunday show for weeks talking about the unfolding economic miracle and warning about what would happen if the opposition got back in charge. Do you like taking off your mask and getting back to work? Better make sure that reactionary Republicans don't take over, send your stimulus checks back to their paymasters in the Hamptons, and trigger another COVID wave with their recklessness! Instead, they basically let Republicans tell the story of a stalled recovery without any organized pushback.
And it's not just the economy. Remember "kids in cages," the left's rallying cry against Trump's grotesque border policies? For all of the ginned-up hullabaloo about another border crisis, the Biden administration has quietly cut the number of unaccompanied minors in Border Patrol custody by 80 percent. No one needs to go out there and claim absurdly that the whole policy problem itself has been resolved, but as the president would say, c'mon man! Here's an issue where Trump did something that was both unpopular and morally abhorrent, and Biden has turned things around and his administration isn't even talking about it. Make the contrast explicit, have your allies flog it on cable TV all day, and don't pretend like Trump no longer exists.
There are reasons to be thankful that Biden is more focused on doing his job than waging social media warfare all day. The fact that he wants to hear extended debate about important decisions is evidence of a man who takes his awesome responsibilities seriously. So far, the public approves of his performance in office.
But his media strategy is no match for the urgency of the moment. Protecting Democratic majorities in Congress next year could be life-or-death for American democracy, and part of that project must be more loudly and forcefully taking credit for the pandemic recovery and other policy victories. That means aggressively combatting the kind of disinformation that is now standard operating procedure on the right. It means using the power of his office to alert Americans to the existential threat these Republicans pose to our institutions, rather than continuing with a futile effort to appeal to the party's rapidly vanishing moderates.
After all, a little malarkey in the defense of liberty is no vice.