Biden’s Reverse Midas Touch

His message isn't getting through. Is it the messenger?

Axios’ Josh Kraushaar laments “Biden’s broken bully pulpit.”

President Biden has been unable to capitalize on a flurry of positive news — from an improving economy to encouraging developments in Ukraine to his top political rival’s legal troubles.

Why it matters: Biden’s inability to use the presidential bully pulpit effectively — a byproduct of his advanced age — has become a serious handicap as he seeks a second term.

  • It’s not the message, but the messenger. Biden, who was never a charismatic speaker in his political prime, is badly struggling to persuade the public of anything at age 80.
  • FDR had his fireside chats. Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator. Barack Obama’s ability to calmly drive home a message, under political pressure, earned him the moniker “No Drama Obama.”
  • Biden lately has had the reverse Midas touch: The public feels worse about the direction of the country after hearing the president make his best pitch.

What’s the evidence for any of this, you might ask?

The big picture: Biden’s team has been trying to sell voters on Bidenomics, capitalizing on the fact that there’s no recession and inflation looks under control. Despite the public relations blitz, his economic approval rating has stagnated — and is worse than his overall approval numbers.

By the numbers: A new Wall Street Journal poll shows that by a healthy 11-point margin (51%-40%), more voters view former President Trump as having a better record of accomplishments than Biden.

  • That’s the clearest sign that Biden has badly lost the messaging war. Biden has spent the last several months traveling the country to pitch his economic record, but few are buying what he’s selling.
  • That’s not for a lack of a strong case: The American economy is significantly healthier than its European and Chinese counterparts. Wages are again growing faster than inflation.
  • But 58% of voters say the economy has gotten worse over the past two years, while only 28% say it has gotten better.

While I fully concede that Biden is a less-than-charismatic public speaker, none of this is evidence that Biden is a poor messenger. Mostly, I fear, this is simply a reflection of the receptiveness of the American public to information.

How much does the average American pay attention to the day-to-day happenings in Ukraine? I suspect not much.

How movable are folks on their opinions of MAGA? I suspect not much. I know my opinion hasn’t moved much—certainly not since January 6, 2020, before Biden’s inauguration.

Perceptions of “the economy” are naturally personal. That we’re recovering faster than Europe, much less China, from the COVID crash is a rational metric but not one likely to resonate with many. The highest inflation in decades—even though it’s receded considerably—is much more likely to leave a sour impression. And the austerity measures being imposed to wring it out of the economy hurt average folks a lot. There’s not much even a more effective communicator could do about any of that.

The only metric here that I find interesting is the finding “that by a healthy 11-point margin (51%-40%), more voters view former President Trump as having a better record of accomplishments than Biden.” I followed the link to the poll* for the precise question wording and found it along with other comparatives:

There was also this:

Biden is facing an uphill fight here. But, again, I’m skeptical that much of it is a function of his skills as a public speaker.

And this is some weak sauce:

Between the lines: Biden has also struggled to showcase his much-vaunted empathy, which helped get him elected president in the first place.

  • During his trip to Hawai’i last month to visit the fire-charred remains of Lahaina, Biden faced tough reviews from across the political spectrum — including from beyond conservative media.
  • During the trip, Biden compared the disaster of a wiped-out town to his experience 15 years ago dealing with a small fire in his home.
  • “When President Joe Biden interrupted yet another of his vacations to visit the devastated island of Maui, tone-deafness was front and center,” Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom wrote.
  • “The fire he referenced, nearly two decades ago, was contained within 20 minutes by the local fire department,” Albom continued. “The only thing worse than misplaced empathy is false empathy, told over and over — with the same phony story.”

I’m not sure why a sports columnist is writing about Biden’s trip to a disaster zone but I must admit that comparing a minor house fire to an epic disaster is beyond lame. But this was the first I’d heard of the incident, so I can’t imagine it had a significant impact on the public perception of Biden.

What they’re saying: New York Times columnist Charles Blow, a reliable Biden defender, expressed frustration this week with the president’s reticence to directly address Trump’s legal woes.

  • “Biden adheres to a dignified silence approach, clinging almost religiously to the notion that voters will recognize and appreciate the difference between a restorer and a destroyer,” Blow wrote.
  • At his Labor Day stop in Philadelphia that traditionally kicks off the campaign season, Biden didn’t mention his leading rival’s name at all.

Who is it that doesn’t already have a pretty strong opinion on Trump’s legal woes? And, frankly, if Biden were banging the drum on them, he would be accused of politicizing an ongoing Justice Department case.

Reality check: Biden allies say it’s premature to judge the president’s performance before the campaign has fully ramped up. The Biden campaign aired a new TV ad during last week’s NFL season opener touting the president’s economic achievements — part of a larger $25 million ad blitz.

The bottom line: Even the campaign’s well-produced ads underscore Biden’s limitations as a public speaker. Both of the campaign’s latest spots — on the economy and his leadership in Ukraine — show visuals of the president but don’t feature soundbites of him speaking.

I mean, if Biden isn’t a great speaker, why would you advertise that fact?

Look, I’m worried that Biden doesn’t have a lead over Trump in the polls at this point. And even more worried that voters seem to think Biden is too old, not mentally up for the job, and has no vision even as compared to his obviously incompetent (and corrupt!) opponent.

Would his being a more dynamic public speaker help ease some of that? Quite possibly.

Mostly, though, he’s dealing with a pretty static political climate and a lagging realization that the economy is improving. I suspect that the latter, at least, will change before it really matters.

_______________

*Don’t be thrown off by the fact that WSJ commissioned the poll. It’s a combined effort by seasoned Democratic and Republican pollsters.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Campaign 2024, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. ptfe says:

    This is not helped by everybody spending a lot of time talking about Trump’s cases, which necessarily means they aren’t talking about Biden.

    I’ve also noticed news agencies are leaning on speculative negativity: everything that happens is some indicator of a brewing problem, something that could become an albatross, or “bad news” for Joe Biden. I suspect that because Trump news is literally never positive, news agencies are trying to seem “neutral” – so they bang on Joe Biden as well. Journalistic malpractice dragging the guy down.

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  2. Charley in Cleveland says:

    Mitch Albom looks at Trump and Biden and declares Biden the phony?? Being a sports reporter, Mitch always thinks he is covering a horse race. But perhaps this is best understood as the media writ large’s determination to keep the campaign money coming into its own coffers. If half the audience thinks up is down and black is white, the problem lies with the medium (TV, radio, print, pixels) failing to deliver an honest, clear message.

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  3. Tony W says:

    Ultimately, the age discussion is about life expectancy – and that’s where Biden needs to get his folks to start discussing his and his opponents’ numbers.

    Clearly Biden is in far, far better health than Trump – and is far more likely to survive until 2028 than Trump is.

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  4. MarkedMan says:

    It’s all about governance vs. clicks. Biden has focused on actual governance rather than winning the news cycle. Right now he is completing a whirlwind tour of Asia where we have nailed down huge progress for the US – built upon a steady Democratic guiding hand that started early in the Obama administration (well, in fairness, George W’s administration recognized the Chinese success in peeling away countries one by one, and started to pivot). He has signed major deals with India and especially Vietnam. This year, Xi did not even show up to the G20, a forum he has been previously using to limit cooperation between Asian countries and the US! On top of that it was a physically demanding tour, with multiple time zones and an absolutely packed schedule.

    For the most part media pundits don’t even understand what is happening there. They don’t understand the significance to us as a nation or to the world at large. It doesn’t even intrude onto their consciousness, much less make it into their horse race columns. And if professional pundits don’t register this level of success, what chance does the average voter have?

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  5. Modulo Myself says:

    Many Americans have elected to forget about Covid and the million dead or so in the same way they forgot about not finding WMDs in Iraq because George W. Bush did some paintings. Trump’s problem is that he’s coming back for another chance, and no poll has really factored in what that will be like by next summer.

    That said–Trump did not have Democrats in various states sending busloads of refugees to hick towns in order to teach a lesson about something. Politically, the right is insane and Biden has been bad at dealing with that and has had terrible advice. Trump was able to talk with Democrats, because they were not terrified of sounding dumb. Biden has funded the police and gone after sentencing reforms. He has allowed schools to ban trans kids from sports. He has secured the border so well that people die all the time (either being held or crossing it). He’s listened to all the moderates and what has it gotten him?

    1
  6. Daryl says:

    I can’t believe that not one of these articles mention the right wing angertainment complex and it’s out-sized influence. Couple that with a main-stream media made up of stenographers, more than willing to simply repeat the MAGA talking point of the day, and you can easily see why Biden’s message isn’t getting out.

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  7. Kingdaddy says:

    @Daryl: Or just the mainstream news’ obsession with horse races, which crowds out discussion of policies and their outcomes. Plus, the electronic front pages of the NYT and the WaPo are crowded with articles about fluffy topics like recipes, movies, and lifestyle tips. How much exposure, then, does the average member of the attentive public get to Biden’s China policy, or its successes and failures?

    3
  8. Kingdaddy says:

    I hope Biden’s unwillingness to engage doesn’t rise to the level of John Kerry’s disastrous unwillingness to rebut the Swift Boat claims.

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  9. becca says:

    Watching the Sunday morning political shows, you understand how Biden can’t break through. The group think and lack of self awareness is almost comical. Chuck Todd told a democrat “you know how perception can become reality” regarding Biden’s age, not acknowledging he and his media brethren are the ones pushing that perception nonstop.

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  10. Bob@Youngstown2 says:

    While I fully concede that Biden is a less-than-charismatic public speaker, none of this is evidence that Biden is a poor messenger. Mostly, I fear, this is simply a reflection of the receptiveness of the American public to information.

    When I compare Biden’s stump speeches (for other candidates) today, versus ten – fifteen years ago, nothing has changed. He is just as fiery and persuasive as ever. That is to say, he seems to have a different style when campaigning versus when he is speaking as President. (IMO, that is appropriate).
    But, our recent experience with the former guy, has acclimated many to expect the presidential speeches to be as combative and filled with derision as campaign speechifying.
    We are quite used to campaign speeches to be laced with falsehoods and hyperbole. OTOH, we expect presidential addresses to be honest and authentic.
    But I agree that shifts in the public acceptance of “information” has shifted, and IMO, not to the better.

    2
  11. Kathy says:

    So, Biden isn’t entertaining, but Benito is.

    Is this any way to run a country?

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  12. gVOR10 says:

    His message isn’t getting through. Is it the messenger?

    No, it’s the medium, the supposedly liberal MSM.

    6
  13. gVOR10 says:

    I’d like to highlight charon two in today’s Forum who quotes an excellent commentary on post-modern politics. Great compliment to this thread.

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  14. Daryl says:

    @Kingdaddy:

    Swift Boat claims

    Then there was Obama’s Birth Certificate.
    Then there were Her Emails
    Now it is Biden’s Corruption and his Age.
    And there is the main-stream media, at every step off the way, giving credence to whatever BS story the right wing can come up with.

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  15. Kathy says:

    @Daryl:

    I’m half expecting the wingnuts will do a Pinky Protocol play.

    It means coming up with a named, non-existent document they’ve asked for from the DOJ, FBI, CIA, whatever, which thoroughly damns Biden, but which they can’t get the deep state to give them. Then play this far and wide every other split second on all the right wing media, and accuse the mainstream press of ignoring it or, worse, helping to cover it up.

    It’s just conspiracy theory nonsense, with even less basis in reality than the usual ones. But that should play along nicely in the current wingnut sphere climate.

    1
  16. Cheryl Rofer says:

    It looks like you and Josh Kraushaar are using that Wall Street Journal poll that was taken by a Trump-funded lackey. The WSJ covered that part up.

    In any case, polls taken more than a year out have historically had little to do with the ultimate election results.

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  17. JKB says:

    But this was the first I’d heard of the incident, so I can’t imagine it had a significant impact on the public perception of Biden.

    That’s because you live in your NYT/WaPo bubble. But granted, I may have seen more of it, but it was interesting how the “incident” went wider than most things. The real danger is that these memes can be revived as they aren’t able to suppress information about the total government functionary failure in Lahaina. So they might revive at an inopportune moment over the next 16 months.

    MAGA has been scrambled and is now MGAA (Make Groceries Affordable Again). The price of arugula may have dropped but the price of ground beef is still headed up. The latter a direct consequence of the attack on fossil fuels Joe signed day one. And it’s only going to get worse as the impacts of the Ukraine war on food rises. The stockpiles are depleted, the export supplies left restricted and there’s a lot of crop acreage offline this year. Could come to the point of ending the ethanol in fuel mandate so that the corn produced in the US (perhaps for the spring planting) is available for human consumption around the world.

    And that is all over the next year. Even the NYT won’t be able to suppress the news of hunger and risk of food riots around the world.

    1
  18. charontwo says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    In any case, polls taken more than a year out have historically had little to do with the ultimate election results.

    Recent Jen Rubin column says disregard the polls, this far out they are meaningless.

    2
  19. gVOR10 says:

    I joke that saying Kevin Drum has a chart is repetitive, he always has a chart. But he repeated this one today, which shows Biden is as popular as Clinton, Obama, and Trump at this point in their first terms. Of the three, only Trump failed to get reelected.

    Meanwhile, on WAPOs online front page Trump’s name appears ten times to Biden’s six. Not quite as bad as 2016, but close.

    2
  20. Michael J Reynolds says:

    @JKB:

    That’s because you live in your NYT/WaPo bubble.

    Yes, we live in reality. Has Q told you yet how to fix the issue of rising beef prices? Is it being caused by Hillary Clinton hoarding it in her underground pizza parlor pedo ring?

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  21. charontwo says:

    @gVOR10:

    I found a link to the piece on the web:

    Link

    A long excerpt is posted in the forum, first post.

  22. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    What’s most interesting is the number of commentators here who are shocked at how the media hardly ever engage in reflective self-examination for bias or other failures.

    The biz is getting clicks not reportage or even-handed commentary.

    3
  23. Jen says:

    @JKB:

    The price of arugula may have dropped but the price of ground beef is still headed up. The latter a direct consequence of the attack on fossil fuels Joe signed day one.

    No. That is not the reason. Cattle require a lot of land and a lot of food and water. Drought, not “fossil fuels” is the reason that farmers culled their herds and reduced head count. So, there’s a supply shortage right off the bat. Then, add in all of the knock-on costs of supply chain disruption and inflation.

    Beef tends to go in 10-year cycles anyway. Changes in calf prices are important, as are input costs (go check the price of hay…also way up because of drought in the years prior).

    Honestly, I know I shouldn’t even respond but some of your comments are just so outlandish/ridiculous I have to wonder if you’re trolling.

    Edited to add: Unless, of course, what you mean by “fossil fuels” causing the increase is that climate change is causing more droughts…thus increasing the price of inputs and making it extremely tough and expensive to farm, but that doesn’t really square with the rest of your sentence.

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  24. al Ameda says:

    @Daryl:

    Then there was Obama’s Birth Certificate.
    Then there were Her Emails
    Now it is Biden’s Corruption and his Age.
    And there is the main-stream media, at every step off the way, giving credence to whatever BS story the right wing can come up with.

    A story like ‘Obama’s birth certificate’ will get the same amount of play as, say, ‘military assistance to the Ukraine.’ The justifications and rationalizations – well, this is the President of the United States and what if it is true? – hardly conceal just how intimidated much of ‘The Media’ is by constant rightwing criticism of ‘the liberal media.’

    5
  25. Thomm says:

    @Jen: here is another thing in his blabber. The corn used in ethanol isn’t food quality. But to a “man of the rural people” right winger, corn is corn amirite?@al Ameda: Franken called this in the late 90’s in Lies and the Lying Liars Tell Them. He decinstructed how the right wing media had already started working the refs in the late 80’s.

    7
  26. Gustopher says:

    @JKB:

    MAGA has been scrambled and is now MGAA (Make Groceries Affordable Again). The price of arugula may have dropped but the price of ground beef is still headed up. The latter a direct consequence of the attack on fossil fuels Joe signed day one.

    You weaken your argument with nonsense. Arugula is still expensive, and cows do not have internal combustion engines.

    Inflation hurt Biden, and will continue to hurt Biden for years because the prices aren’t going down and people remember grocery prices being lower and are reminded each time they go shopping. Slowing the rise to normal levels was good, but the damage is done.

    The average consumer doesn’t know that we did better than most of our peer nations, etc. It happened on his watch, and he will bear that burden going forward, despite his administration doing better than most of the world.

    As for MGAA, might I ask how Trump is going to make groceries affordable again? What’s the mechanism? What actions will his second administration take?

    6
  27. DK says:

    @ptfe:

    I suspect that because Trump news is literally never positive, news agencies are trying to seem “neutral” – so they bang on Joe Biden as well.

    When have we seen this happen before?

    But Her Emails.

    3
  28. Jen says:

    @Thomm: He did make a lame attempt at understanding that, by suggesting every major corporate farm that produces corn for ethanol could just “switch in time for spring planting”:

    Could come to the point of ending the ethanol in fuel mandate so that the corn produced in the US (perhaps for the spring planting) is available for human consumption around the world.

    This too, however, is completely nonsensical for anyone who even vaguely understands the agriculture sector. Corn for food is a heavily subsidized commodity and those farmers would not be thrilled with a sudden shift in the market, even if such a change were feasible. Which it is not. IIRC, there are different production considerations for each type of corn crop (food, animal feed, biofuel). Food corn is harvested when the kernels are soft, while corn for animal feed isn’t harvested until after the kernels are dry–even the harvesting equipment is going to have to adjust to that.

    Industrial farmers don’t just randomly decide to plant a different crop a few months prior. It would take years of planning to make that switch.

    3
  29. Lounsbury says:

    @ptfe: There is the old expression, I think from USA in the golden years, “if it bleeds, it leads” – plus general journo culture in USA land seems particularly acrro to a certain kind of two sides horse-racism, utterly lazy and brain dead…. but refined for the clicks or the page highlights.

    @Gustopher: Presumably Trump will engage in some kind of bizarro world half attempt at price controls in groceries plus lots of bombastic declarations. this will be sloppily and lazily executed and its only saving value will be through sheer laziness, be so ineffectual as to have no practical effect. Then no matter what, Trump will declare a huge victory and the MAGA pre-deceived mouth-breathers will wildly applaud.

    In meantime however the more comptetent reactionary elements which will exploit Trump and MAGA and will be particularly focused on the judicial apparatus will pack your judgeships with reactionaries, not mere conservatives, for quite the enormous negative in the medium to long-term.

    Finally of course the Purity Pony Left will declare on any attempt for Biden to re-centre that there is no daylight between “corporate Dems” and the MAGA as anything less than 100% is clearly zero…. and in Trump Era Bis will sagely declare the reason for Trump was Democrats not being Lefty.

    2
  30. Lounsbury says:

    @Thomm: Corn that goes into the fuel cycle is most certainly food quality for animal feed. Biofuel from primary grown agriprod is a sin against proper climate policy. Its worse than wrong.

    Not that Biden per se is responsible for that policy, which is more your farm lobby dates back to the 1990s

    1
  31. DK says:

    @gVOR10:

    But he repeated this one today, which shows Biden is as popular as Clinton, Obama, and Trump at this point in their first terms.

    I hope he keeps repeating it. My goodness, from all the bedwetting you’d think Biden was most uniquely unpopular president in history.

    A few others besides Drum are trying to break through the legacy media’s dedication to getting played by fake rightwing narratives (Red Wave 2022!!11!!!). For example, Frank Bruni’s headline today: Trump Is Really Old, Too. “Trump is a mere three years younger than Biden, and he’s overweight,” Bruni writes. Finally.

    But we usually get pieces like CNN’s Stephen Collinson’s latest horsersce analysis, where Collinson specifically mentions Biden’s age (80) but not Trump’s (77). This is standard in current punditry, the tenor of which suggests Biden is age 101 and Trump is age 7 (Trump’s brain age may be 7, but not his real age. Apologies to 7 year olds.)

    I wrote Mr. Collinson a friendly missive, wondering “Is being old only bad when Democrats do it?”

    4
  32. Kathy says:

    @Gustopher:

    As for MGAA, might I ask how Trump is going to make groceries affordable again? What’s the mechanism? What actions will his second administration take?

    He will 1) do nothing, 2) claim grocery prices have never been lower.

    6
  33. gVOR10 says:

    @Kathy: And they’ll believe him.

    4
  34. Matt says:

    @JKB:

    Could come to the point of ending the ethanol in fuel mandate so that the corn produced in the US (perhaps for the spring planting) is available for human consumption around the world.

    Tell me you have no idea about farming without actually telling me. You do not want to eat yellow field/dent corn outside of high fructose corn syrup.

    Spend some time looking at the contracts required by seed providers for industrial farming. Hell maybe google a bit to see the differences and the changes required to grow corn for direct human consumption..

    3
  35. JKB says:
  36. DK says:

    @One American: Ivan? You mad? Putin not paying y’all again?

    1
  37. DrDaveT says:

    @Kingdaddy:

    Or just the mainstream news’ obsession with horse races, which crowds out discussion of policies and their outcomes.

    I think you’re being too kind. Daryl’s characterization of the media as “stenographers” is on point — these are not people with the expertise or critical thinking skills to understand what proposed policies would actually result in, or even to find credible experts who could tell them. But they do know whether it would look like a win for Team D or Team R, so that’s what they write about.

    1
  38. JKB says:

    @Matt:

    You are making the point of the original post. You are saying that the Biden admin can’t overcome the seed company contracts and induce the growth of dent or white corn that is used in human food. Sweet (food, on the ear) corn isn’t really useful for food security exports. What has to happen is to remove the ethanol market so more animal feed, corn meal, syrup, starch products are available for food production.

    Otherwise, “Biden’s war in Ukraine” will be the reason for riots and political instability in Egypt, Turkey, etc as food becomes scarce or expensive. Would that be a good narrative for an election year?

    Sure, Trump isn’t likely to alter that, if elected, but that won’t be known until after November 2024.

  39. Matt says:

    @JKB: I had no idea you were an advocate for nationalizing industries in the USA. Personally I would start with starlink as the US government has already invested quite a lot into it and it’s clear that Musk cannot be trusted to operate starlink in a neutral manner.

    I know more than a few farmers who would be upset about the drop in crop prices that would result in killing ethanol.

    What’s hilarious is ethanol use in the US dates aback to the mid 1800s up until it was taxed as a liquor in the civil war. Hell Henry Ford himself called ethanol the fuel of the future..

    1