Joe Biden’s empathy was his superpower in 2020. Can he find it again in 2024?

(Nati Harnik / Associated Press)

Joe Biden’s empathy was his superpower in 2020. Can he find it again in 2024?

Election 2024

Doyle McManus

April 15, 2024

Whatever happened to the empathetic Joe Biden who won the 2020 presidential election?

Some days it feels like that kind Uncle Joe has been replaced by one

grumpy old pole

irritated by voters who don’t give him credit for a strong economy.

When the Labor Department reported last week that inflation had risen to 3.5%, likely postponing a rate cut, Biden did not offer much relief.

We have dramatically reduced inflation from 9%, he said. We were better situated than when we came to power. That’s true, but it’s cold comfort for consumers and homebuyers.

A week earlier,

[April 1]

When a reporter asked Biden what he would say to Americans stressed by high prices, the president responded: I would say we have the best economy in the world. We have to make it better.

It is a theme he has been working on for months. In his State of the Union address, he praised the American economy as something the envy of the world.

But a chorus of Democratic strategists say this is the wrong message, especially because it lacks the element that was once Biden’s political superpower: empathy.

You can’t tell people they are better off than they think, says Mark Mellman, a veteran political consultant. It is important to acknowledge your pain. Otherwise it comes across as a signal that you don’t understand their lives.”

“I wouldn’t go there to glorify the miracle of the Biden economy,” said David Axelrod, who helped Barack Obama win two presidential elections.

The right strategy is to say, “Look, we’ve made a lot of progress [but] the way people experience this economy is the way I did growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania,” Axelrod said in an interview with conservative pundit Bill Kristol. ”How much did you pay for the groceries? How do you pay for gas and rent? These continue to be a problem and I am fighting that battle.”

The message should start with empathy and focus on prices, which is the issue most important to voters, said Stanley Greenberg, who helped Bill Clinton win the presidency in 1992. Otherwise, he said, people will just get mad and angry.

During the 2020 campaign, as Americans were reeling from the human and economic costs of the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden often spoke about his personal history, his upbringing in a family of modest means, the death of his first wife and daughter in 1972. highway accident, the death of his son Beau in 2015 and his sense of kinship with others who suffered losses.

Biden’s campaign was not shy about drawing attention to the contrast with then-President Trump, who seemed more intent on ignoring the impact of the pandemic. “Empathy is on the ballot,” soon to be Jill Biden




said madam on Twitter. But those empathetic moments appear to have become less frequent since Biden became president.

Biden does acknowledge that the economy still has problems, but not nearly as often as he emphasizes that his policy is successful.

We have more to do. I understand, he said in Arizona last month. But there is no doubt that our plan to reach the American people is working right now.

It is also true that the economy has improved over the past two years, with strong growth, job creation and wage increases in recent months. When Biden took office in 2021, the economy was beginning to recover from the pandemic, but unemployment was still above 6%. Since then, more than 15 million jobs have been created and the unemployment rate has been below 4% for more than two years.

But Biden has reaped little political benefit from those positive trends, especially as inflation, which peaked at 9% in 2022, has led to persistently high prices and mortgage rates.

The voters are in a sour mood. An Economist/YouGov poll released last week found that 67% of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, and 39% believe the economy is in a recession. (It doesn’t.) Only 20% say they believe the economy will. improve if Biden is re-elected. Twice as many, 44%, said they believe the economy will get better if Trump wins.

The president still gets some credit for empathy, but less than before. In 2020, the Quinnipiac Poll reported that 61% of voters said they believed Biden cares about the average American; this year the same poll showed that number had fallen to 51%. (Trump trailed by 42% on this issue in both 2020 and this year.)

Inflation is a frustrating problem for any president. There is little he can do to lower food or gasoline prices. A president is not supposed to put pressure on the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates


and it probably wouldn’t work if he tried.

So Biden has tried to show voters that he is doing his best by pushing down prices in areas where the federal government does have influence. One of his favorite talking points is his sponsorship of the 2022 law that allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices and caps the monthly cost of insulin at $35; Biden says he will seek to expand the law’s reach if re-elected.

But critical strategists say he can do more, especially if he can reactivate his superpower.

I think he can win with a message that starts


with empathy, saying I know high prices kill people, and goes on to talk about higher taxes for billionaires and corporations, Greenberg said. Let Joe be Joe.

In short: be more like Joe from Scranton and less like President Biden from Washington, Axelrod said.

Biden aides say, sometimes in garbled language, that they don’t need so much free advice. Politico reported last year that the president called Axelrod “a dick.”

And yet maybe they listen.

This week,

[Tuesday, April 16]

Biden is launching a three-day economic tour of Pennsylvania, and he’ll start by talking about taxes. His first stop: Scranton.


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