Democrats' dilemma: Biden's agenda is popular, but he is not

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden returns to the White House in Washington

By Jarrett Renshaw

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Andrea Singmaster is thankful for President Joe Biden. He helped secure funding to clean up a contaminated site in her Philadelphia suburb and his efforts to crack down on Medicare drug prices will help family members financially manage arthritis and Crohn's disease.

But she is not so thankful that Biden, who turns 81 this month, is running again.

A lifelong Democrat who voted for Biden in 2020, Singmaster is hoping that someone else emerges to change the 2024 election, including Democratic longshot Dean Phillips or a Republican that can beat Donald Trump in the Republican primary race.

"I love Joe Biden. He's great, you know, but he's an old dude and I am really frustrated with our lack of choices and wish I could just run away," the 50-year-old Singmaster said.

The contrast between the popularity of the Biden agenda and the unpopularity of its pitchman, even among some party loyalists, is a major concern for Democrats going into 2024.

Biden's legislative victories include items popular with a large swath of American voters, such as allowing the federal government to negotiate Medicare drug prices, capping insulin costs, boosting infrastructure investment and tackling climate change.

Biden has sought to weave those items into a broad economic message - dubbed Bidenomics - of reinvesting in working-class America and lowering the costs of essentials like energy and healthcare.

Biden and top administration officials spent chunks of the summer crisscrossing the country on an "Investing In America" tour to highlight and explain those policies and seek to boost support for his presidency.

There is little sign that the effort was successful.

Biden's approval rating is hovering around 40%, near the lowest level of his presidency, according to the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll. And he repeatedly gets low grades for his handling of the economy, fueled in part by frustration over high food and energy prices.

The stubborn poll numbers suggest that Biden's unpopularity is deep-rooted.

"All I know is what I see in the polls and there are huge majorities of people in this country who think that the president is too old and I don't know if they are able to look beyond that and see, you know, the increase in manufacturing jobs and other aspects," Democratic political strategist James Carville said. "Thus far, they have not."

One piece of good news for Biden is that Trump, 77, is also unpopular. He is the clear frontrunner in the Republican primary race but neither man polls well nationally.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll in September showed that about 57% of respondents had an unfavorable view of Biden, and about 58% held an unfavorable view of Trump.

That increases the odds that both campaigns will focus on negative voter sentiment, urging people to vote against a rival they paint as a threat, rather than relying on enthusiasm for their own candidate.

Biden trails Trump in five of the six most important battleground states a year before the election, a New York Times and Sienna College poll released on Sunday showed.

Joseph Foster, a Democratic committee member in Pennsylvania who recently stepped down as the party's chair in Montgomery County, the largest and most important Philadelphia suburb, said the number of Democrats who say to him about Biden, "he's too old" or "he's not sharp" is troubling.

He said this should be a time to celebrate Biden's achievements, not whining about polls and openly questioning whether the president should run again.

"I don't understand. This is a guy who's coming in and doing all those things that we are supposed to be doing as Democrats," Foster said.


Still, the polls are hastening calls from some Democrats for the Biden campaign to focus less on him and his "Bidenomics" pitch and more on the dangers they say Trump poses.

Reuters interviewed more than a dozen Democratic officials, most of whom said the party's best chance of retaining the White House is to use Trump - not Biden - to mobilize voters.

"I think it's time we bury the Scranton Joe playbook," said a Democratic strategist who worked on the 2020 campaign and is now helping congressional candidates, about ads featuring Biden's working-class roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Biden's aides dismiss the polls as well as calls to focus on negative Trump messages. They argue the election is a year away and that wary voters will ultimately come home to Biden when the choice is narrowed to either him or Trump.

Singmaster underscores that sentiment. She said that she will back Biden if it's a rematch of 2020.

But in an election that is likely to be decided on turnout, neither campaign can ignore signs of sagging enthusiasm.

A campaign memo last week showed that Biden plans to ask voters to let him "finish the job" and focus on proven winning issues such as abortion rights, while also presenting Trump as out of touch with Americans.

"Our early research shows the president’s message of building on our progress to finish the job remains a winning one for mobilizing our base and persuading undecided voters,” campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez said.

Vice President Kamala Harris spoke of the disconnect between Biden and his policies at a recent fundraiser in St. Louis.

She said pundits and media often talk about bad polls but then rattled off a list of accomplishments - from capping insulin and prescription drug charges for seniors to investing in green energy jobs - that are widely popular.

"We got a lot of good material. One of our challenges, though, is to let everybody know who brought it to them," Harris said. "I say that so we can also dispense with some of the, you know, whining."

(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Heather Timmons and Rod Nickel)