President Joe Biden is eager to claim credit. He wants recognition for the decline in coronavirus-infection rates that his vaccination push seems to be speeding along, and for the economic recovery that he expects his $1.9 trillion spending package to underwrite. This month, Biden gave his first prime-time Oval Office address to trumpet the former, and the White House is rolling out a public-relations road show to tout the latter. For a man of his age, Biden is taking a lot of victory laps.
The president’s keenness to impress his successes on the public stems from the knowledge that his party’s hold on power is precarious. A tiny margin protects its House majority; a vice-presidential tiebreaker gives it Senate control. The country remains as it has been for 20 years: ideologically split, with a few voters in a few swing states deciding each presidential election. And the Democrats’ losses of congressional control in 1994 and again in 2010—in the midterm races right after Bill Clinton and then Barack Obama assumed power—bode ill.
But will the fanfare matter? Will sending surrogates around the country and hyping his achievements gain Biden credit for a healthier and wealthier society, should it emerge? This much seems safe to say: In the past, presidents who failed to produce material results for voters never managed to convince them of their policies’ effectiveness, while those who clearly delivered concrete improvements scarcely needed to gild the lily. In short, presidential efforts to claim credit for overcoming adversity have typically succeeded when they’ve been needed least.
So far, Biden appears to be superintending a smooth and speedy vaccination campaign. He is getting cities to resume in-person schooling despite resistance from teachers’ unions and progressives. He has allocated money to ensure safe reopenings. Many Americans already feel as though we’ve turned a corner in the pandemic. The economy is also reviving. Democrats justified the huge expenditures of the so-called American Rescue Plan by noting the lackluster recovery induced by Obama’s smaller 2009 bill; a stronger revival would require stronger medicine. But the economy is already faring much better today than it was in 2009, and jobs and businesses should reappear quickly once the pandemic is tamed. The $1.9 trillion may function less like lifesaving medicine given to an ailing patient than like steroids injected into a fit athlete.
Should the auspicious trajectories continue, Democrats may stand a chance of bucking historical trends and avoiding a blowout in the midterms. Granted, such political benefit would not be wholly deserved. Americans assign responsibility for economic management to the president, even though many factors outside his control dictate growth and unemployment rates. Vaccination rates had been rising before Biden took office. Presidents often resemble the proverbial rooster who takes credit for the sunrise.
Regardless of the precise correlation between presidential action and societal well-being, recovery—and not rhetoric—will most likely govern Biden’s (and the Democrats’) fortunes. The experts who design models to predict election outcomes always give heavy weight to the “fundamentals”—things such as how the economy is doing, whether we’re at war or peace, or if a big scandal has erupted—not to victory laps. And a few examples from the historical record support that idea.
During the Depression, Herbert Hoover tried to mask his feeble agenda by turning to public relations. He went so far as to retain the publicity maven Edward Bernays to help run an Emergency Committee for Employment. But Hoover did not assist the committee by offering a jobs program or a spending stimulus, and its board lacked the legal force to compel companies to do much of anything. Even Bernays, who devoted his life to extolling the power of PR, eventually threw up his hands at the fact that the body was really nothing more than “a public-relations committee.” He wasn’t a magician.
By the same token, Barack Obama chalked up his troubles in 2010 to bad spin. “Given how much stuff was coming at us,” he told The New York Times, “we probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right … And I think anybody who’s occupied this office has to remember that success is determined by an intersection in policy and politics and that you can’t [neglect] marketing and PR and public opinion.” His vice president agreed. “I kept saying, ‘Tell people what we did,’” Biden said recently of his conversations with Obama. “He said, ‘We don’t have time’ … and we paid a price for … that humility.” But poor messaging probably wasn’t the primary reason for the Democrats’ losses in 2010. A more likely candidate was the still-sluggish 2.6 percent economic growth rate that year, coming on the heels of a negative growth rate in 2009.
And so it has gone: Lyndon B. Johnson proved unable to spin his way out of his Vietnam morass, and Jimmy Carter failed to persuade the American public to rest content with the dire economic straits of the late 1970s. As the political consultant and analyst Paul Begala has quipped, “The Titanic had an iceberg problem. It did not have a communications problem.”
Still, most modern presidents have coupled their policy initiatives with some kind of rhetorical campaign on their own behalf. And such promotional campaigns generally do no harm, even if they tell Americans what the people already know. Ronald Reagan would probably have coasted to a reelection victory in 1984 on the strength of the economic rebound, even had his campaign not run the stirring “Morning in America” television ads that linked the president to the new prosperity. Whether his policies were responsible for that boom is beside the point; voters tend to reward the people in power when prosperity returns, no matter the intricacies of economic cause and effect.
At its best, moreover, positive rhetoric emanating from the White House can focus a scattered nation’s attention on the presidential agenda and inspire the public to hang tough until the worst is past. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats during the Depression forged a close bond between him and much of the public. He won its indulgence as he soldiered through the years-long process of recovery.
Credit-taking can backfire, however, particularly if it seems opportunistic. Richard Nixon had been in office for just a few months when Americans first walked on the moon, but that didn’t stop him from associating himself with the achievement or praising it in fulsome terms—earning himself more ridicule than credit. Everyone remembered John F. Kennedy’s vow to make it happen and Johnson’s years of investment in NASA.
Worse still are premature acts of credit-taking. In May 2003, when the Iraq War appeared to be the cakewalk that Vice President Dick Cheney had predicted, President George W. Bush celebrated the fall of Saddam Hussein with an elaborately staged spectacle, landing a fighter plane on the deck of an aircraft carrier, posing in his flight uniform for pictures with jubilant sailors, and then declaring the end of “major combat operations” in front of a banner that read MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. Democrats carped that Bush was wasting taxpayer dollars on self-promotion, but Republicans welcomed their complaints as a chance to re-air the footage, which they thought would help Bush in his 2004 reelection campaign. Six months later, however, the spring’s euphoria had curdled into concern about the war’s duration, cost, and toll. In October, Time magazine showed the president in his flight suit, with the headline “MISSION NOT ACCOMPLISHED,” and General Wesley Clark, launching a presidential run, sneered at Bush for choosing “to wear the flight suit and prance around on the aircraft carrier.”
Bush won reelection, but barely—and had the election been held a year later, when the Iraq War became really unpopular, he certainly would have lost. Sophocles is said to have coined the apothegm “A lie never lives to be old”—deception might win you short-term gains but will be exposed in the long run. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” hubris cost his party control of the Senate and the House in 2006 and, in 2008, the White House as well. Again, rhetoric lost out to reality.
Biden will want to put his stamp on the benefits that his early efforts seem poised to bring about. But rest assured: His popularity—and the fate of his party in the next elections—will turn mainly not on what he says but on what he does.