© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

Black Lawmakers Say Biden Is Messing Up His Messaging on the Economy

Biden wants to take a victory lap on the economy. Black lawmakers say doing it in the wrong way could alienate Black voters.

Raphael Warnock, Joe Biden, Sanford Bishop AP-24139607952330
President Joe Biden walks with Morehouse College alumni Sen. Raphael Warnock and Rep. Sanford Bishop. Alex Brandon/AP

With President Joe Biden somewhat struggling with Black voters — at least compared to historical trends — Black members of Congress are trying to figure out why.

The problem, some Black lawmakers think, is Biden keeps missing the mark when it comes to messaging about the economy. Time and again, Black lawmakers have brought up an inherent tension between the Biden campaign taking credit for a stronger economy while also not making voters feel like the job is done.

The Biden campaign knows economic messaging is tricky. They want to tout their accomplishments while also being sympathetic to voters who feel the cost of living has outpaced their wages. It’s part of the reason why the Biden campaign has largely adopted the message that voters should let him “finish the job” on the economy — an acknowledgment that things aren’t perfect while also acknowledging that things are getting better.

“We use this terminology called ‘permission structure,’” said Quentin James, president of Collective PAC, which has been advising the Biden campaign on Black voter outreach. “It’s like, listen, people are frustrated based on a lot of factors we’ve been talking about, inflation. We can talk about all this stuff, and it’s OK to be pissed off about it. But it’s really important to know: How do we solve the challenges, and who’s responsible for the problems?”

For starters, James advised the campaign to simplify its language to Black voters; instead of “lower inflation,” he said, Biden should say “lower costs.”

“It’s not to say that presidents shouldn’t use words like that. He’s the president. We expect them to use that type of language,” James said. “What we want to do with the campaign is make sure when we’re talking to Black audiences that we can break down these terms and get to the real impact.”

Biden Georgia Lawmakers
President Joe Biden greets Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens as Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock and Rep. Sanford Bishop look on. Alex Brandon/AP

As much as Rep. Sanford Bishop was sympathetic to Biden’s outreach challenges, the longtime Democrat told NOTUS he would give the president’s messaging a “C.”

“The challenge of the campaign is to help people understand what it meant to be able to come into office at a time when our schools were shut down, the economy was shut down,” he said.

Bishop suggested Biden should argue to Black voters that they don’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” He also argued that Biden should convince Black voters to focus on the substance of what he’s saying rather than how he’s saying it.

“Every incumbent has to give account for his or her stewardship,” Bishop said. “There’s a lot of noise out there, and the noise creates distractions and people are focusing on the matters when they should look at the big picture.”

Rep. Jonathan Jackson of Illinois noted that young Black voters are unhappy with Biden because they’re entering adulthood at a time when people are going to the grocery store and spending “$100 without purchasing any meat.”

So when Biden speaks of his past economic feats — such as the Inflation Reduction Act and 15 million new jobs under his watch — Jackson suggested his voters feel left behind. They don’t feel like they’re on, as Jackson put it, “the winning team.”

The Biden campaign has to “speed up and hear people’s concerns,” he told NOTUS. “I don’t think they’ve effectively communicated with those students, those young voters to reintroduce [him] to a new generation.”

Rep. Don Davis of North Carolina shared a similar view. He said Biden needed to take a more targeted approach toward younger Black voters. He pointed to the Black constituents in his district, ones who “face enormous and unique challenges, educational gaps, economic gaps, health care disparities,” and suggested they would warm up to Biden if he redefined what it means to be prosperous in an economy that looks healthy on paper but doesn’t translate to people’s lived experiences.

“People are feeling frustrated, you know, for different reasons, and I believe we have to acknowledge the frustration,” he told NOTUS.

Acknowledging the frustration is difficult. Antjuan Seawright, a longtime Democratic strategist who advised Hillary Clinton’s 2008 and 2016 presidential bids, described Biden’s conundrum as the “nature of the beast.” While Biden must acknowledge Black voter frustrations with the economy, he said, their qualms are a result of a “once-in-a-century pandemic” that isn’t Biden’s “fault.”

“They were not doing well before him and he should not be blamed for that,” Seawright told NOTUS. “I think we have to be really specific and intentional about what he’s done to improve both the overall economy and people’s personal economy, and how it relates back to their vote.”

Seawright added that Biden needs to send other messengers to meet Black voters “where they are” because some Black voter attitudes on Biden are influenced by misinformation.

Of course, Biden’s Black voter problem isn’t exactly new. He’s been bleeding support from Black voters for the past few years. And beyond how Biden speaks to Black voters, Democratic operatives have long pointed to a culture, behind the scenes, where Black voters have either been sidelined or treated as an afterthought.

In January, elected Black women, Democratic Party members, strategists and clergywomen from battleground states gave the Biden campaign “an earful” about the need to engage Black women who are disappointed with the president’s first term. Two months later, Black female Democratic operatives told NOTUS they were worried the Biden campaign was moving too slowly to empower Black women.

Black leaders on Capitol Hill also shared in the disillusionment — Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi told NOTUS he had a “frank discussion” with Biden campaign officials to warn them that “Most white officials have this propensity to look at the Black vote as something two or three weeks before the election and they don’t invest in long-term resources in making that happen.”

Since then, Biden has actually increased voter outreach to the Black community. In May alone, he delivered the commencement address at Morehouse College, called Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. his “hero,” attended a gala hosted by the Detroit chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — where he was honored with a lifetime achievement award for his service to the Black community — and announced a voter outreach program specifically tailored to Black voters. He promised Black voters he would “put racial equality at the center of everything I do.”

While some Black lawmakers are sounding the alarm that Biden needs to refine his messaging, other Black lawmakers had nothing but applause for the president.

Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, Biden’s national campaign co-chair, argued that the notion of Biden struggling with Black voters was just a media creation.

“It’s a media issue,” he told NOTUS.

Still, other Black lawmakers on the Hill said there was a very real gap between Biden and Black voters — and that his current outreach efforts aren’t doing enough to close the chasm.

Rep. Cori Bush had a bold suggestion: Biden should appeal to Black voters with talk of reparations.

But would that really help Biden, considering the blowback he would face from other constituencies?

“Absolutely,” Bush told NOTUS. “If we make a decision to do it, do it right, like, really be intentional about it.”

Tinashe Chingarande is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.