In Wisconsin, Biden to all economic achievements amid persistent concerns on inflation

In Wisconsin, Biden to all economic achievements amid persistent concerns on inflation
In Wisconsin, Biden to all economic achievements amid persistent concerns on inflation

CNN

When President Joe Biden visits Wisconsin on Wednesday, he’ll attempt to draw a direct line between his signature legislative achievements and shovels in the ground — and a direct contrast with Donald Trump — as he seeks to win over voters unhappy with the overall economy.

Biden plans to announce a $3.3 billion investment from Microsoft to build a new artificial intelligence facility located on the same site where, in 2018, then-President Trump broke ground on what was supposed to be a signature project under his administration: an electronics factory for Taiwan’s Foxconn, which had secured billions in tax credits and promised thousands of jobs.

Those investments largely failed to materialize. And in his remarks Wednesday, Biden plans to directly point his finger at Trump for that failure, according to a White House official.

The sprawling stretch of Racine County, which sits between Chicago and Milwaukee, has been at the center of an intense local political debate over the development through one whipsaw election after another. Residents who live and work nearby told CNN they were happy to see the projects — and the jobs — but it was hardly a guarantee that their own economic anxieties would be allayed.

“Things are really uncertain, not knowing what’s going to happen with interest rates and what’s going to happen with the whole economy,” said Dave Flannery, whose family operates the Apple Holler orchard and farm just a few miles from where Biden is set to visit on Wednesday. “Personally, I’m very optimistic in terms of our future, but at times it’s very scary out there.”

Tom Osterhaus, whose family owns Cozy Nook Farm about an hour away near Waukesha, said inflation is one of the biggest criticisms he has about the Biden administration. While he’s not a huge admirer of Trump and hoped for a Republican alternative, he said he would gladly return to the economic policies of the Trump era.

“You get your paycheck and it looks good, but when you pay the bills out, it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s all gone,’” Osterhaus said. “To me, inflation is the big overriding problem economically.”

Asked whether it was fair to place the blame entirely on Biden, Osterhaus said: “They are the administration that’s in power.”

At the outset of his term, Biden told some Democratic colleagues he planned to be the “most progressive president since FDR,” the architect of the New Deal.

Biden has spent the last two years on the road while spending the trillions of dollars of infrastructure and construction that resulted from legislation he signed, much of it passed through Congress on a bipartisan basis. But leading economists have argued the very funding that helped fuel economic growth also caused rising prices — clouding Biden’s ability to sell those achievements to voters.

“It’s important for him to be here to hammer home his economic messages and make it real for people,” Mandela Barnes, the state’s former lieutenant governor, told CNN. “Some people are still thinking about the $1,500 check they got from Trump.”

In CNN’s most recent poll, Biden’s approval ratings for the economy (34%) and inflation (29%) remain starkly negative, as voters say economic concerns are more important to them when choosing a candidate than they were in each of the past two presidential contests.

As Biden leans into the unfinished business of his 2020 campaign — and urges voters to let him “finish the job” in 2024 — multiple outside advisers and donors have expressed worry the president is tacking too far to the left. The concern: A platform containing costly proposals like universal preschool, subsidized child and senior care, and expanded health care caterer less to moderates than to the party’s base.

“One-eighth of one percent of the population is going to decide this election,” one longtime Biden donor tells CNN, requesting anonymity to share confidential conversations with the campaign. “I’ve told them to move more toward the middle.”

Yet Biden is also still working to shore up his own progressive base, a task complicated by the rising outrage over the administration’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

During a previous trip to Wisconsin, President Joe Biden speaks about student loan debt relief at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wisconsin, April 8, 2024.

Wednesday will be Biden’s fourth trip to Wisconsin so far this year, an indication of how central the state is to the President’s reelection roadmap. Wisconsin is a pillar of the so-called blue wall with Michigan and Pennsylvania — all three of which Trump won in 2016 and Biden flipped four years later.

In 2020, Biden won Wisconsin by fewer than 21,000 votes. And with a similarly small margin expected to select the 2024 victor, several advisers and former Biden officials have said that striking the right policy tone with moderates this year — without alienating the party’s base — is paramount.

“I think that’s the No. 1 question,” a former Biden adviser says of the debate over how progressive to fashion the president’s approach. “Answering that right is the answer of whether Biden wins the election.”

The Biden campaign and its acolytes don’t see it that way, citing polling that shows the president’s agenda has been popular among the party’s most loyal voters, as well as independents.

“He doesn’t have to choose between a progressive path and a moderate path,” said Bharat Ramamurti, Biden’s former deputy director of the National Economic Council. “The agenda he has pursued is the consensus path.”

As the Democratic Party’s priorities evolve, consensus has taken different forms — and sometimes required Biden to shift his own positions to the left.

A self-professed capitalist, he pledged during the 2020 campaign not to demonize the rich. Soon after taking office, Biden repeatedly began pushing for policies that tax wealthy individuals and corporations, a shift that emerged from a “Unity Task Force” established by the campaign seeking input from progressive economists.

Perhaps no policy is more illustrative of this shift than student loan forgiveness. Biden started out the 2020 campaign supporting only the most limited student loan forgiveness — such as discharging loans when a borrower declared bankruptcy or died.

But on the eve of a March 2020 debate with progressive firebrand Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was proposing blanket cancellation of student loans, Biden widened his embrace of loan forgiveness. And as president, Biden announced his support for income-based forgiveness that would cancel more than $360 billion in government loans.

While that plan was blocked by the Supreme Court, Biden used regulations and agency authorities to cancel some $146 billion in student debt.

“It never felt like it was truly something he wanted to do during the campaign,” said the former Biden adviser. “And now it’s one of his first economic agenda items.”

Individual issues like student loan forgiveness tend to poll well among voters, especially young voters, whose monthly payments are a larger portion of their take-home pay.

“It’s quite striking when you look at the data,” Ramamurti, the former Biden deputy NEC director and one-time adviser to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, told CNN. The question is whether the votes will follow in November.

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, MJ Lee and Camilla DeChalus contributed to this report.

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