WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden wants to tame inflation. He wants Congress to protect access to abortions. He wants to tackle voting rights. And he’s taking on China, promoting construction of new factories, addressing climate change, forgiving student debt, pardoning federal marijuana convictions, cutting the deficit, working to lower prescription drug prices and funneling aid to Ukraine.
Biden is trying to be everything to everyone. But that's making it hard for him to say he's focused on any single issue above all others as he tries to counter Republican momentum going into the Nov. 8 elections.
“There’s no one thing,” Biden said Wednesday when questioned about his top priority. “There’s multiple, multiple, multiple issues, and they’re all important. ... We ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. You know, that old expression.”
Biden's exhaustive to-do list is a recognition that the coalition of Democratic voters he needs to turn out Election Day is diverse in terms of race, age, education and geography. This pool of voters has an expansive list of overlapping and competing interests on crime, civil rights, climate change, the federal budget and other issues.
The Republican candidates trying to end Democratic control of Congress have a far more uniform base of voters, allowing them to more narrowly direct messaging on the economy, crime and immigration toward white voters, older voters, those without a college degree and those who identify as Christian.
In the 2020 election, AP VoteCast suggests, Biden drew disproportionate support from women, Black voters, voters younger than 45, college graduates and city dwellers and suburbanites. That gave Biden a broader base of support than Republican Donald Trump and it also is a potential long-term advantage for Democrats as the country is getting more diverse and better educated.
But in midterm elections that normally favor the party not holding the White House, it requires Biden to appeal to all those constituencies.
“Coherence and cohesion have always been a challenge for the modern Democratic Party that relies on a coalition that crosses racial, ethnic, religious and class lines,” said Daniel Cox, a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “It takes considerable political talent to maintain a coalition with diverse interests and backgrounds. Barack Obama managed to do it, but subsequent Democrats have struggled.”
Biden devoted his public remarks this past Tuesday to abortion, Wednesday to gasoline prices, Thursday to infrastructure and Friday to deficit reduction, student debt forgiveness and historically Black colleges and universities. In most of his public speeches, Biden says he understands the pain caused by consumer prices rising 8.2% from a year ago and that he's working to lower costs.
Cox said there are signs that Biden's 2020 coalition is fracturing, with younger liberal voters not that enamored with him, and he does not appear to have done much to shore up Hispanic support.
But compared with 2016, when Trump won the presidency, Biden made relative progress with one prominent bloc that generally favors Republicans: white voters without a college degree, as he won 33% of their votes compared with 28% who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to a 2021 analysis by the Pew Research Center.
Keeping those voters in the Democratic coalition could be essential for maintaining control of the Senate.
Biden has traveled repeatedly to Pennsylvania, campaigning on Thursday for Senate nominee John Fetterman with the goal of picking up a seat in the state. Fetterman, with his sweatshirts and shorts, exudes a blue-collar image, a contrast with the Republican nominee, Dr. Mehmet Oz, who rose to fame as a TV show host.
“Democrats need to hold on to as much of that bloc as possible, especially in key whiter states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin,” said William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The test for Democrats is how to address broader concerns about the economy and inflation that affect everyone, while also highlighting the specific issues that could energize various segments of their base.
That can involve trade-offs.
As Republicans have made crime a national issue, Biden's message that he backs the police could help with those white voters. But it could also turn off younger voters in Senate races in Georgia and Florida who believe the police are part of the problem on civil rights, said Alvin Tillery Jr., a professor at Northwestern University and director of its Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy.
Tillery said he doesn't know how the president can bridge those differences, though Biden could be in a better position to focus on the policing overhaul that Democrats tried to negotiate with Republicans — only to be unable to reach a consensus that would be able to clear a GOP filibuster.
“Maybe they’ve blunted some Republican attacks, but they’ve also softened support for people who turned out for them in the 2020 election,” Tillery said. “I don’t know how they solve for that, except to say they need to be more vigorous in saying the things they wanted to achieve were blocked in the Senate.”
Tillery added the overarching challenge might be that people view inflation as a domestic phenomenon, rather than a global one. Republicans are blaming high prices on Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief from 2021, whereas recent months have also shown that inflation is a worldwide trend driven in part by the aftermath of the pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, causing prices for energy and food to rise.
“The reality is -- like all presidents -- he is a victim of things beyond his control,” Tillery said. “Inflation is a problem globally. It’s much worse in other parts of the world, but he can’t message that way.”
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