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Midterm voters have a way of reminding presidents what to focus on

The economy is still far and away the biggest issue for voters, just like then

Former President Barack Obama hugs President Joe Biden at Biden's inauguration in 2021. Biden is following in the footsteps of Obama in the run-up to the midterm elections, David Winston writes.
Former President Barack Obama hugs President Joe Biden at Biden's inauguration in 2021. Biden is following in the footsteps of Obama in the run-up to the midterm elections, David Winston writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

On Feb. 10, House Democrats will hold a “family conversation and full-day messaging summit” to communicate their “vision and accomplishments to the American people.” In one of the most ironic recent moments, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was forced to change her original plan for the Democrats’ annual issues retreat to take place at that time in Philadelphia because of the surge in the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Speaking of irony, the scheduled headliner at the retreat to talk about the Democratic Party’s messaging as the off-year congressional elections loom was none other than former President Barack Obama, according to Jake Sherman of Punchbowl News.  Apparently, no one stopped to consider the fact that inviting a president whose strategy cost Democrats 63 seats and control of the House in 2010, his first off-year congressional election, might not be the ideal choice. It’s a little like asking Terry McAuliffe to offer advice on winning off-off-year elections. 

Still, with the striking similarities between Obama’s first year and President Joe Biden’s, perhaps Democrats can learn something from the mistakes Obama made leading up to what was a crucial election for control of Congress and the issue agenda that went with it.  

The challenge for all incoming presidents is to balance who gave them the nomination and the larger, less partisan electorate that made them president. This dynamic also impacts the priority of issues. Obama failed to understand that crucial point.

In 2009, with the economy in dire straits, Obama kicked off his presidency with a nod to the No. 1 issue in the 2008 election, the economy, by passing a $792 billion stimulus bill in February 2009 with a focus on infrastructure. Sound familiar?

But despite the failure of the stimulus bill to jump-start job creation as the new president had promised, Obama decided to pivot to the Affordable Care Act. In March 2010, he signed his health care bill with great fanfare. We all remember what an ecstatic Vice President Biden called it on an open mic — but Biden, apparently, didn’t learn the right lesson from this episode.

In the 2008 election exit polls, the economy topped the issue list at 63 percent; the Iraq War was at 10 percent, with health care coming in third at 9 percent. Two years later, after passage of the stimulus bill and all the hoopla over Obamacare, the 2010 exit polls showed that the economy remained voters’ biggest concern at 63 percent, while health care was still far behind at 18 percent.

By the time of the 2010 midterms, Obama had little to run on in terms of the economy. The country was in its 19th consecutive miserable month of 9 percent or more unemployment. Voters weren’t happy.

Using a car analogy, Obama tried to blame the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, for the state of the economy, saying Republicans “drove our economy into a ditch.” Now wasn’t the time, he argued, to give the keys back “to the folks who got us in the ditch in the first place.” It was a partisan message that failed to make up for months of debilitating unemployment. Voters didn’t buy it, and on Election Day his job approval was 44 percent approve and 55 percent disapprove. 

Republicans, on the other hand, with House Minority Leader John A. Boehner leading the charge, got to the heart of the matter by asking a very direct question — “Where are the jobs?” — which Obama could not answer.  

Republicans took the House in 2010 because they made the No. 1 issue the No. 1 issue and won independents by 19 points, women by 1 point, the suburbs by 13 and seniors by 21, and they also got 38 percent of the Hispanic vote.

But the impact of Obama’s miscalculation went beyond the Beltway. This was also the redistricting election, and Republicans gained 6 governorships and more than 700 state legislative seats, giving the GOP a massive advantage in terms of redistricting. The effect of the Republican win lasted throughout the decade as a result. 

In 2018, President Donald Trump made similar missteps when he decided to focus on Republican base issues like immigration rather than the broader concerns of the electorate. By 2018, the economy had significantly improved in the eyes of voters, going from only 36 percent saying the economy was excellent/good in 2016 to 68 percent two years later. 

That notion was supported by the final jobs report the Friday before the election that even Jared Bernstein, one of Biden’s chief economic advisers, said at the time was “pretty much everything you could want in a monthly jobs report.” 

But rather than talk up and take some deserved credit for a significantly improved economy, Trump decided that the key issue that fall was the caravan approaching the U.S. border and focused his messaging on that topic. He lost the House, with Democrats winning independents by 12 points, and ended the campaign with a job approval at 45 percent approve to 54 percent disapprove.

Today, Biden’s Real Clear Politics average is already worse than either of his predecessors after their first-term defeat, at 41 percent to 54 percent disapproval.

As it was in 2008, the economy is the country’s top issue, with its sub-issues of inflation, energy costs and other kitchen table issues with the COVID-19 pandemic and crime other important concerns of voters. 

Yet Biden seems to be walking a familiar path, following in Obama’s footsteps by focusing on Democratic base issues: social spending, climate and voting rights. As a result, Biden’s job approval among independents in the recent Economist/YouGov poll, Jan. 22-25 was an abysmal 26 percent approve/64 percent disapprove; and in Morning Consult’s Jan. 22-23 survey, it was 34 percent approve/59 percent disapprove.

Following the Obama playbook, Biden is attempting to place the blame for the country’s economic problems, the continuing struggle against the virus, rising crime, border security and foreign policy challenges on his predecessor and/or Republicans as a whole. Yet, in the same breath, he and his defenders try to make the case that Year One of the Biden presidency has been one of great progress and achievement. He can’t have it both ways.

By overplaying to his political base, just as Obama did, he has alienated the political center that elected him. Independents didn’t buy this strategy in 2010, and they aren’t likely to buy it now.

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