By Kevin Liptak, CNN
Allentown, Pennsylvania (CNN) — When President Joe Biden visited Pennsylvania on Friday — his first official event of the year, and the 33rd time he’s been to the commonwealth since taking office — the topic was a familiar one: Bidenomics.
His use of the phrase has been a source of contention among some Democrats since last summer, when the president and his aides devised a strategy of taking more credit for economic gains made under his watch.
But as the economy continues to show signs of improvement – and his most likely Republican rival inches closer to the nomination — there are few signs Biden is retiring the label, even if others in his party avoid it.
On Friday, Biden flew the Bidenomics banner in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the onetime steel and manufacturing hub that suffered the fallout of deindustrialization, but has seen a revival in recent years, with an unemployment rate the White House says is now at a 30-year low.
While there, he eschewed a formal address from behind a podium for a series of encounters with small business owners, who he said had benefited from his policies and touted what the administration calls a “small business boom,” with 16 million new business applications filed since the start of his administration.
But even Biden acknowledged that efforts to take credit for the improving economy had fallen short.
“If you notice, they’re feeling much better about the economy,” he said when questioned about the disconnect between positive economic indictors and his own approval ratings. “What we haven’t done is let them know who exactly got it changed.”
Biden’s aides hope Bidenomics will eventually become a rallying cry for Democrats as economic gains finally make their way into American households and psyches, and his investments in infrastructure, technology and jobs begin to take hold. But they acknowledge that shifting public outlook on the economy won’t happen overnight.
“The president’s economic policies are showing great results in terms of real wage gains, real employment gains, real wealth gains,” National Economic Council director Lael Brainard said Thursday, “but we still have work to do on lowering costs.”
Consumer Price Index numbers released on Thursday indicate consumer prices rose 3.4% annually in December, a significant decrease from the year before. Still, prices are much higher than they were before inflation began rising early on in Biden’s term and inflation has persistently dogged the president as a political issue.
Biden has pressed his team to find tangible ways to show how his record is improving peoples’ lives and lowering costs, and officials say he has been frustrated at stubbornly low approval ratings that don’t reflect an economy that is, by most measures, doing extremely well.
In Allentown, Biden sought to highlight a community that has rebounded, both after heavy industry moved out and the pandemic shuttered many businesses. Unemployment now stands at 3.9%.
He toured shops selling running gear and bikes, and ordered a mango smoothie from a coffee shop, whose owners he later said had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and depression during the pandemic.
Later he visited a firefighter training facility, which has benefited from federal funds passed during Biden’s administration.
The president’s team has been searching for ways to highlight his accomplishments that go beyond rote podium speeches, which so far haven’t been successful in improving Biden’s economic standing.
Biden’s visit here fit within a strategy to localize his policies to specific communities – not by accident in a critical electoral battleground – that White House officials believe can make more of an impact with voters.
“It’s starting to sink in with people what’s happening,” Biden said as he concluded his visit.
A long fight to change the economic narrative
Focusing on small business growth in Allentown can also help Biden make his case on lowering consumer prices, a senior administration official argued, pointing to the ability of a vibrant business landscape to increase competition and lower costs for consumers.
“These are related to each other, right? This is more small businesses and more entrepreneurship, more competition in the economy, which contributes to lowering costs. And so I don’t think it’s an either-or. I think it’s all of the above,” the official said.
“There is absolutely more work to do” on lowering costs, the official went on. “And the president believes this deeply and is engaged on it to reduce costs for families to provide them with more breathing room and that’s why we’ve remained incredibly focused on reducing costs.”
Biden’s aides have been encouraged by rising earnings that are, at long last, outpacing increases in inflation. The president and his team have been eager to point out a widely predicted recession never materialized. And they have pointed to improvements in several measures of consumer confidence as a sign that Americans are starting to take a sunnier view of the economy.
At the same time, easing inflation, strong hiring and improved consumer confidence have not resulted in a significant improvement in how Americans view Biden’s handling of the economy — including in Pennsylvania, where Biden continued to make his economic case Friday.
A Quinnipiac University survey of registered Pennsylvania voters released this week showed only 33% of voters described the economy as either excellent or good; 66% called it not-so-good or poor. The poll showed 44% think the US economy is getting worse, with 29% saying it’s staying the same and 26% believe it’s improving.
For Biden, however, the Quinnipiac results still held a glimmer of good news. The poll showed Biden at 49% support compared to 46% for Trump in a general election matchup — within the margin of error, but still “the first time in Pennsylvania that Biden has a numerical advantage over Trump in the 2024 presidential race,” according to the pollster.
Some Democrats are skeptical
Among some of Biden’s fellow Democrats, there have been longstanding concerns about the Bidenomics approach. Despite widespread praise for Biden’s accomplishments, some say Biden’s focus is better spent laying out the threats posed by a potential second Trump presidency — stakes the president has now begun dramatically laying out in political speeches, including two over the past week.
Other Democratic allies say Biden is better off tailoring his message more narrowly around prices, which White House aides acknowledge is a top issue for Americans.
Blueprint, a public research firm that tests which policies and messages are breaking through in the hopes of helping Democrats get elected, recently published data encouraging Biden to adopt a tighter message on inflation and lowering prices, saying those are areas most important for voters.
Among the specific policies it said were resonating are investing in agricultural supply chains, reducing the deficit and going after “junk fees.”
“What we’ve found is that Biden really does need to champion more effectively his anti-inflation agenda. A lot of his policy victories – and he has meaningful policy victories on inflation – just aren’t breaking through,” said Blueprint’s chief pollster Evan Roth Smith.
“The president can and should take every opportunity to really tout these policies and say: ‘Yes, I am in the fight with you on prices; yes, I get the concern; yes, I am taking and have taken action. Here’s what I’ve done X, Y, and Z.’ And this stuff resonates,” he said.
The White House said the Blueprint data affirmed the popularity of Biden’s policies.
“Recent elections show that Americans prefer those policies to trickle-down MAGAnomics, which raises health care costs and utility bills for families while giving tax cuts to the wealthy and special interests,” said White House spokesman Michael Kikukawa. “We will continue working to ensure every American has heard of the President’s incredibly popular accomplishments.”
Other Democrats say they are wary of taking credit for an improving economy that many Americans still view negatively.
CNN reported last week that Rep. Steven Horsford, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus and was an early Biden supporter in the 2020 race, has met with White House and reelection campaign leaders – including top Biden adviser Anita Dunn – to press them into moving off using Bidenomics, arguing that the phrase is too centered on the president rather than on appealing to voters.
Other Democrats have expressed similar views, often in private, to question the usefulness of the phrase. Even Biden himself initially voiced skepticism when his team was debating the term behind the scenes last summer, wary of tethering himself to what was then a still-uncertain economy.
During its initial rollout, the president himself professed confusion at what, exactly, the word meant.
“We decided to replace this theory (trickle-down economics) with what the press has now called Bidenomics,” he said during a political rally with union members in Philadelphia. “I don’t know what the hell that is. But it’s working.”
Biden’s team has worked since then to provide a firmer definition – including in multi-part social media posts and photos shared online of the president explaining the theory at a whiteboard – but one aspect of his comment endures: Bidenomics is defined in part by what it is not.
In speeches touting his own economic record, Biden now routinely contrasts that with the GOP, calling out Republicans who opposed his infrastructure plan but are now taking credit for projects in their districts made possible by the measure.
He’s also called out his most likely Republican challenger, Donald Trump, for cutting taxes on wealthy Americans and failing to secure new infrastructure investments.
As Biden ramps up his reelection efforts, some members of the team are moving from the White House to his campaign, including one with a key role in realizing the benefits of Bidenomics: Mitch Landrieu, who was the West Wing point person on implementing the new infrastructure law.
Landrieu is expected to join the Biden campaign as a co-chair, officials said.
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