Joe Biden is shouldering historically low poll numbers heading into his reelection campaign. The good news is that he has a readymade platform in the form of the defunct Build Back Better bill. The bad news? He’ll have to be forced to run on it.

Joe Biden speaking on Labor Day in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 4, 2023. (Kyle Mazza / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Joe Biden and the Democrats are running for reelection next year, in a campaign season on whose outcome, Biden says, the future of American democracy depends. So what are they running on?

Nothing so far, it seems.

Don’t just take it from me. The president’s campaign launch commercial vowed to “finish the job” without explaining what that job was or what he intended to do to finish it. Based on conversations with his advisors, the Associated Press reported in April that the Biden 2024 message “will be largely indistinguishable” from his rhetoric over the six months prior, and will see him “play up accomplishments from his first two years, draw a sharp contrast with Republican policies he deems extreme, and brush off worries about his age.” We got a preview of this in his June speech in Chicago, where Biden pointed to positive macroeconomic indicators to make the case that “Bidenomics is working,” touted the legislation he’d already signed into law, boasted about his pro-union bona fides, and hit Republicans for wanting to bring back failed trickle-down economics.

The problem is, Americans aren’t that thrilled with Biden’s presidency or his economy. The President’s approval rating has been in near-historic doldrums for well over a year now. Even Democratic voters don’t want him to run again and tell pollsters they’re unenthused about his steering of the economy, particularly those who tend to be younger, less wealthy, and black or Latino. Another recent poll found that, as Biden prepares to rest his reelection chances on his strong record of accomplishments, only 40 percent of registered voters actually think he actually has that record (eleven points fewer than for Donald Trump, his likely opponent).

Unfortunately, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out, the “strong macroeconomy” that Biden and his supporters keep pointing to — low unemployment, strong wage gains at the bottom, and now a slowing inflation rate — mask the very real pain and precarity that workers are still living in, in the midst of soaring evictions, a dysfunctional and deadly health care system, and extortionate prices for a swath of essentials ranging from housing and childcare to prescription drugs and groceries.

This is all made worse by the fact that a major part of Biden’s record is historic rollbacks in the welfare state, having presided over the steady disappearance of the unusually generous economic protections (by US standards) created during the pandemic. Already more than five million people have been thrown off Medicaid, and evictions have spiked higher than they were before the pandemic. The end of September alone will usher in an end to childcare funding, which is set to trigger job losses and burden countless families, and the restarting of student loan repayments, which will cost borrowers hundreds of dollars every month.

Biden isn’t wrong that his “Bidenomics” is an important break from decades of conventional thinking about what role the US government should play in the country’s economy. But using tax incentives and public investment to juice the private sector is not the best of the New Deal 2.0 and is far from the ambitious agenda he both ran on and at least initially tried to enact. Even his defenders admit that the economic benefits of this program are going to take a while to filter into people’s pocketbooks.

In other words, the President and his party haven’t done enough to alleviate people’s economic pain, and what they have done isn’t yet having the impact that they hoped for. That’s a problem for a party trying to get reelected next year, especially with voter turnout among key Democratic voter groups looking weak, exactly what doomed the party in 2016. Whether you think Biden’s campaign message is bad, good, or somewhere in between, it doesn’t really matter — it plainly isn’t working.

The good news for them is there is a tried-and-true method countless successful politicians have leaned on to win elections and excite their political base. In fact, it’s the same one Biden used in 2020 to help engineer a century-high turnout, including among the very groups he’s struggling with now: run on an ambitious platform of promises to make people’s lives better.

There’s more good news for the president: Biden and his team don’t even have to spend time, money, or energy thinking up a whole new platform. They have a readymade set of promises in the form of the defunct Build Back Better (BBB) bill, once the centerpiece of Biden’s presidency, which promised everything from free community college and a $15 minimum wage to universal pre-K and a lower Medicare eligibility age. Here’s even more good news: that legislation and its individual pieces were wildly popular across party lines even to the bitter end, when inflation dominated headlines and Biden’s approval rating started to slump badly.

Hell, Biden could simply do as my colleague Nick French has suggested and run on reviving some of the pandemic-era programs that expired under him, like expanded Medicaid coverage and food stamps or pausing student loan repayments.

Doing so would fit snugly in with Biden’s existing but vague plea to voters to let him “finish the job” and could serve as a rallying cry to vote for his party downballot: Remember that once-in-a-generation, New Deal–esque program you voted me in to enact and how it was killed by Republicans? If you vote for me again and give me a Congressional majority, I can make it happen in my second term.

Unfortunately, Biden seems uninterested in doing this. In his Chicago speech, the president spent the bulk of his time talking up the supply-side legislation he’d signed into law that voters are unexcited by, and relegated a promise to revive the BBB’s popular measures to a single line: “I’m determined to keep fighting for universal pre-K and free community college.”

From the start, the conservative Biden has had to be pushed, prodded, and dragged into the progressive policies he has enacted and now wears as a badge of honor, and as absurd as it may be, he’ll have to be forced here, too, to embrace his own presidential agenda and use it to save his reelection.

The media has a role in this. Liberal commentators right now are sweating, staring down the barrel of Biden’s alarming poll numbers and declaring them a great mystery, even preemptively blaming the Green Party for an impending loss. A better use of their time and energy than wondering out loud why voters are so wrong about this great president is to instead push the president to actually be great, and urge him to revive the ambitious agenda that was nominally the reason they liked him in the first place.

Instead, in only two years, they’ve seemingly forgotten it existed. As just one example, Pod Save America’s Dan Pfeiffer once called the never-passed BBB a potential “historic legislative achievement” whose “impact and importance” he couldn’t stress enough and which might be “our best, and perhaps last, chance” to address climate change. But faced with Biden’s polling woes today, his only suggestion is “communicating to young voters Biden’s accomplishments” — even though the climate bill Biden ended up signing into law was a shadow of the already inadequate original bill.

Pushing Biden to go big should be a no-brainer if you really believe democracy is at stake next year. As is, Biden and the Democrats are going into what they claim will be the most important election of our lifetimes apparently assuming they can promise little to nothing, and that people’s disgust with the opposition will mean it won’t matter. Maybe it’ll work. But that’s a hell of a gamble.

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