The ghost of Ronald Reagan seems to be haunting – or at least consulting – Joe Biden’s White House. The administration’s recent adoption of the term “Bidenomics,” which echoes “Reaganomics,” seeks to turn a less-than-gratuitous blow from the the wall street journal And FinancialTimes into a positive talking point about Biden’s economic achievements.
Just before Biden delivered a major economics speech in Chicago last month, his press office announced that Bidenomics was “the word of the day, the word of the week, the word of the month, the word of the year.” As a strategic move, however, this particular presidential currency might not be as smart as they think.
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Let’s start with the Reagan connection. “Reaganomics” was coined in the early 1980s by legendary Conservative broadcaster Paul Harvey, who, unlike the wordsmiths who coined “Bidenomics”, was sympathetic to the program. Reagan’s critics called it “trickle down economics”; during the 1980 Republican primary, George HW Bush dubbed it “voodoo economics”.
Reagan’s economic policies, also known as supply-side economics, aimed to reduce taxes, increase defense spending, slow the growth of non-defense functions of government, and reduce the deficit. Biden’s economic plan is in direct contrast: he recently described it as an alternative to the “trickle down” economy that is instead concerned with “building the economy from the middle and from the bottom up.”
Experts and proponents still debate the successes and failures of Reaganomics. Either way, while Reagan never publicly used the words “trickle down” or “Reaganomics,” his economic policies remain an important part of his legacy for those who admire the man and his presidency.
Given that, it’s curious that Team Biden leans on the most revered and iconic Republican president of the modern era for brand inspiration. Moreover, the names of presidents often end up being attached to their perceived failures. Think “Hoovervillethe term used to describe the slums of the Great Depression under Herbert Hoover; “Johnson’s Waras a critical commentary on Vietnam; or the “Bushismsborn out of George W. Bush’s adventures in public speaking.
“Obamacare” also began as a pejorative to describe the “socialized medicine” the country would be subjected to under the Affordable Care Act. Barack Obama eventually adopted the nickname, stating in a 2014 interview with Charles Barkley that he liked the term. Ironically, polls at the time suggested Americans liked the Affordable Care Act but not Obamacare — an example of the downsides of such inventions and, many political scientists say, the pitfalls of modern polling.
So what is Bidenomics? The president’s June speech included a few light details, but given that the audience for such an event is quite small, few voters are likely to have heard of it. More recently, Biden’s team and their allies were quick to point out that the economy is improving on the basis of low unemployment and reduced inflation, suggesting that Biden — regardless — is working.
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The problem with this strategy is multiple. First, while any White House adviser can tout hand-picked positive economic indicators, presidents will take the blame when the economy is bad and take credit when it is good. Yet presidents have little or no control over the economy. If they did, we wouldn’t have recession or inflation, which have no political advantage.
Second, even if inflation is slowing, most Americans are not yet seeing the benefits. Many Southern Californians, for example, are likely to have a more pessimistic view of the economy given the regional cost of gas, groceries and rent. It usually takes time for voters to feel an improvement in the economy. Case in point: The economic boom of the late 1990s was attributed in part to the elder Bush’s bipartisan agreement to raise taxes in 1990, but it was Bill Clinton who reaped the political benefits.
Biden’s economic plan may deliver stellar results, but it’s far too early to tell. And in October, millions of people will start repaying their student loans again, stretching their budgets further.
Finally, the administration’s overly smart embrace of “Bidenomics” fails to advance the president’s strongest argument for a second term. Successful presidential campaigns must tell the right story about why a candidate deserves to be elected, and this is especially true for incumbents seeking re-election.
If we ask Reagan’s famous question during the 1980 campaign – “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” — the answer is nuanced. Through the lens of the chaos that was and would be Donald Trump, and given the credit Biden deserves for carrying the pandemic across the country, then perhaps the answer is yes.
But on so-called kitchen table economics, it’s a harder sell. A recent poll suggests only a third of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the economy. And his overall approval rating is about 40%with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for his re-election even among Democrats.
Bidenomics’ message appears to be entirely strategic, flimsy, and generally out of place at a time when the president desperately needs to convince the country that his leadership is better than the alternative. Asking politicians to put aside strategic and messaging gimmicks is probably too much, but the Biden team needs to give voters some credit for understanding all the issues that matter.
Lori Cox Han is a professor of political science at Chapman University and the author of several books on the American presidency.
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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.