Biden’s reelection could hinge on how much women voters trust him on the economy
Grace Panetta is a political reporter with The 19th.
President Joe Biden ran for office during the “first female recession,” when the pandemic walloped women’s economic prospects much more than men’s. Women in and out of the workforce were burdened by extra caregiving responsibilities. Biden promised to get things back on track — especially for women of color, who were hardest hit by the pandemic — and to restore a sense of normalcy in their lives.
Since he took office, women’s employment has rebounded amid a historic low overall unemployment rate. Labor force participation among women aged 25 to 54 has fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels, and a significant number of women with children under 18 have reentered the workforce.
Biden and his team tout these improvements, some of which were in motion before he took office, saying they have fulfilled the campaign promise. They also point to the passage of several landmark economic investment packages and workplace protections for women and parents. The past two years have also seen a broader, but still unfulfilled, push for wage equality, paid leave and child care — moves highly popular with the public that face significant roadblocks in Congress.
As Biden launches a campaign for a second term, he’ll have to educate voters about what he’s done — and convince them that he’s the one who can finish the job when it comes to long-neglected policy goals important to women and families.
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The challenge, as described by people who back the president, is multifaceted: Many temporary programs benefiting women and families, like the expanded child tax credit, have expired or are set to expire later this year. Efforts to pass more permanent investments in paid leave and child care stalled out in the Senate. And despite Democrats’ better-than-expected performance in the 2022 midterms, many voters don’t know what the Biden administration has passed.
Energizing women voters, who tend to be more Democratic than men, is core to Biden’s chances of winning. Groups that back him, like the nonprofit Building Back Together, have been working to pitch women voters on these accomplishments even before his reelection bid is announced.
“Fundamentally, all of the legislation has an economic narrative that we have an incredible opportunity to tell,” said Mayra Macías, interim executive director of Building Back Together. “… It is so important to show these concrete examples of people who are already feeling the impacts and are able to tell their story.”
The economy isn’t the only way gender will impact the 2024 election. Abortion access, which boosted Democrats to victory in many 2022 races, is poised to play a major role again in 2024. But the White House and Biden’s allies are also laser-focused on promoting Biden’s economic achievements, especially as they relate to women, and are preparing to spend considerable resources communicating them to voters.
What Biden has done
Biden’s investments in the economy started soon after he took office in January 2021, following two major economic stimulus packages passed in 2020 under then-President Donald Trump.
The American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion relief package Congress passed in March 2021, sent direct payments to millions of Americans and “stemmed the freefall of the child care sector” with a lifeline of subsidies, said Melissa Boteach, vice president for economic security and child care/early learning at the National Women’s Law Center. It also expanded the child tax credit, which cut child poverty in half while it was in effect, broadened other tax credits for families, bolstered nutrition assistance and lowered health care premiums.
The bill “made a huge difference” for women and families in need, Boteach said, but the relief measures, many of which are temporary and since expired, were “never designed to address the underlying problems that COVID laid bare.”
In 2021 and 2022, the White House, working with a narrowly divided Senate, got through a trifecta of bills that aimed to cut costs for Americans and create more job openings for more women in industries long dominated by men: the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the party-line Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).
“I think that we’re at a transformational moment for women, especially women in the workplace,” said Noreen Farrell, executive director of Equal Rights Advocates. “And I think a lot of that has to do with how the Biden administration has prioritized that in the past few years.”
Several other pieces of legislation were designed to help women stay in the workforce and be treated fairly. In 2022, Biden signed into law several bipartisan bills aimed at combatting gender-based violence and workplace harassment, including a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). In addition, the December government funding bill included more federal funds for child care block grants, VAWA programs, maternal health research and workplace protections for pregnant and breastfeeding workers.
And after the IRA capped out-of-pocket insulin costs at $35 per month for Medicare recipients, three major drug companies announced they would lower insulin costs for all patients. Reducing drug costs is particularly significant for women, who make an estimated 80 percent of the health care decisions for their families and spend more on health care than men on average.
“There’s really no more important issue than your family’s health and your health care — this has been one of the most important issues that we’ve seen over the past decade-plus,” said Danielle Deiseroth, interim executive director of left-leaning pollster Data For Progress. “They should take a victory lap, because government delivering on tangible wins that impact folks’ everyday lives is almost unheard of in the modern political era.”
Macías also pointed to Small Business Administration leader Isabel Guzman’s focus on empowering women small-business owners, and guidelines from the Department of Commerce, led by Secretary Gina Raimondo, requiring companies seeking over $150 million in CHIPS funds to provide employee child care.
LGBTQ+ people also benefited economically from Biden’s orders, which included requiring federal agencies to fully enforce the employment protections for LGBTQ+ people that the Supreme Court granted in a landmark 2020 ruling, a break from the Trump administration, and directed the federal government to ensure LGBTQ+ equity across various agencies and programs.
“Those agencies have taken, in this administration, an explicit commitment to look at the impacts on LGBTQ people,” said Elana Redfield, federal policy director at the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles Law School. “Whether it’s economic development, meeting basic survival needs through services like SNAP and [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] or in job creation, they’re all using a lens that wasn’t there before.”
The test for 2024
Conversations with over a dozen Democratic strategists, pollsters and gender policy advocates portray both a steep messaging test and an opportunity to show what Biden allies describe as transformative investments in the economy and commitments to bolstering gender equity under his tenure.
“I think he’s one of the most accomplished presidents out there. It would have been easier if he’d only gotten a couple of things done, because then voters would have known what it was,” said top Democratic pollster and Lake Research Partners president Celinda Lake. “The sheer volume has increased the difficulty of the communication task way more than I think any of us envisioned.”
The lead official tasked with this messaging is poised to be Julie Chavez Rodriguez, a senior White House adviser and longtime Democratic strategist Biden tapped to manage his reelection campaign.
A poll from moderate think tank Third Way and Impact Research in the summer of 2022 found that just 24 percent of voters knew that Congress had passed a significant $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill months earlier. Another survey from Data For Progress fielded shortly before the midterms found that less than half of voters surveyed knew about the prescription drug price decreases in the IRA, which start going into effect in 2023, and even fewer knew of the bill’s other provisions or had seen advertising related to the bill.
A post-midterm survey of voters in eight battleground states from the Democratic group Way To Win found that 78 percent of voters and 76 percent of women couldn’t name anything Biden had done that had directly benefited their lives. Voters who named the economy as their most important issue reported voting for Republicans by over 30 points in the survey, revealing a “major vulnerability” for Democrats in 2024, the poll memo concluded. “It is simply unsustainable,” the memo said, “to lose this badly on the most important issue to voters.”
“In some ways, it mirrors the overall story of President Biden,” said Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, Way to Win’s vice president and chief strategy officer. “He’s done more than any administration in modern history, but there’s just still much more to do. And for women, economic concerns are just not relegated to the kitchen table.”
The pro-Biden super PAC Unite The Country is gearing up to mount an ad blitz on Biden’s economic agenda targeting the Midwest. Amanda Loveday, a senior adviser to the group, said the PAC is “purely going to be spending our money in the Rust Belt talking to voters and women across Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.”
“I do think that voters forget why they can afford more, or why they have such a good-paying job or why their insulin is cheaper,” Loveday said. “It’s our job to ensure that they know it was Joe Biden.”
What got left out
The recovery from the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic was an “uneven” one for women, families and particularly women of color, said Boteach of the National Women’s Law Center.
Significant economic investments in infrastructure, job creation and climate resiliency came at the expense of equally ambitious economic investments in families and caregivers. Landmark investments in child care and a federal paid leave program fell out of Biden’s initial Build Back Better proposal and didn’t make it into the IRA. And Congress let the expanded child tax credit expire at the end of 2021.
“The climate legislation and infrastructure will benefit everybody, including many women,” Boteach said. “But it was disappointing that at the end of the day, the care economy pieces fell out of the reconciliation bill.”
The fall of Roe v. Wade, and the slew of abortion bans that followed, also dealt a critical blow to gender equity efforts both within and outside the White House. However, advocates argue that in addition to using the tools at his disposal to shore up abortion rights, Biden has an opportunity in 2024 to harness continued anger to promote highly popular but incomplete elements of his agenda, including child care and paid leave.
Dawn Huckelbridge, director at Paid Leave for All Action, pointed to a September survey of likely battleground voters conducted with the Global Strategy Group that found 81 percent of voters polled supported federal paid family and medical leave — an 11-point increase from November 2021, before Roe fell.
Voters energized by abortion rights, she argued, “are also voters who care about paid leave.”
“Finishing the job” left undone by Congress is emerging as a critical theme of Biden’s expected reelection bid. Biden called on Congress to pass paid leave, allocate billions in funding for child care and reinstate the expanded child tax credit in both his State of the Union address in February and his budget proposal.
“That was probably the best I’ve seen Biden talk since the campaign,” Deiseroth said of the State of the Union. Emphasizing “tangible benefits for voters” from lowering health care costs and tackling junk fees, she argued, creates a stark contrast between Biden and “Republicans spinning up an apocalyptic version of America.”
But with Congress divided, Biden finds himself in opposition to a Republican-controlled House of Representatives advocating cuts to federal spending and taking aim at the legislation passed in the two years of his presidency. Republican messaging in 2024 will likely again center the economy and the cost of living — issues paramount to women and women of color.
Women can’t afford Biden’s America,” Emma Vaughn, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, said in a statement. “While Biden doubles down on his radical agenda that leaves women behind, Republicans will continue to champion women and focus on issues that matter most to American women.”
Fernandez Ancona said a Biden win will require a broad coalition capturing not only independent and swing voters but also “surge voters” who don’t regularly turn out to vote in presidential races. Women of color, she added, “are an incredibly important constituency” in that coalition.
‘An end to the chaos’
Biden proved in the 2022 midterms that “people really underestimated him,” Lake said. He and his party, she argued, turned a midterm election that voters typically approach as a referendum over the sitting president into a sharp contrast between Biden’s leadership and what they cast as Republican extremism on abortion and democracy.
“2024 has to be, again, a choice,” said Lake, one of the leading pollsters for Biden’s 2020 campaign. “The choice is very dramatic, including on work and family issues, and on abortion. It couldn’t be starker.”
And women voters, who make up a majority of the electorate, “are the key swing audience for both parties” in 2024, she said.
“As Democrats, we have to win women by more than Republicans win men, and for Republicans, they’re trying to cut their losses among women,” she added. “Women are going to be the battleground in 2024.”
A bipartisan survey conducted in December by Lake Research Partners and the Tarrance Group found that Hispanic women, a key swing demographic heavily courted by both parties in recent elections, showed “off the charts” support for many of the economic policies in Biden’s agenda, Lake noted.
“The percentage of women of color who are with Democrats on every issue that we’re trying to put forward is so much higher,” Fernandez Ancona said. “The biggest thing is not overlooking that they’re an important part of the electorate, and what they care about matters.”
Biden won in 2020 by arguing that he would return to normalcy and restore stability after the tumult of the pandemic and the chaos of the Trump years. And Lake said that message should also underlie his reelection pitch.
“As one millennial woman said in our focus groups, ‘Why is everything in this country a dumpster fire?’” Lake said. “And she’s right. People, and women in particular, really want an end to the chaos. They want stable leadership, they want a steady hand. And that is an enormous strength of Joe Biden’s.”
This article originally appeared in The 19th.