Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including, “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Democrats have to be feeling good about recent polls. It appears that former President Donald Trump and the Supreme Court have given Democrats a chance to blunt, if not reverse, the historic midterm trend that leaves the president’s party nursing significant losses. If the polls are to be believed, Democrats might just hold on to their majorities in the House and Senate, making 2022 a rare example of the party in power doing well.
The most recent data from a New York Times/Siena College poll found that Democrats are in a competitive position, with 46% of registered voters saying they back the party’s candidate for Congress in their district, compared to 44% for Republicans. This is a dramatic turnaround, given that analysts had anticipated a “red wave” at the beginning of the year. While President Joe Biden’s legislative success (most notably, the Inflation Reduction Act) has been important, the easing of gas prices, the scandals surrounding Trump and the fury over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has put the GOP on the defense.
For Dems, highlighting a radicalized Republican Party with a leader who is in serious legal and political trouble will be a key element of any success they achieve. This shouldn’t be particularly difficult, given that Trump has endorsed numerous election-denying candidates and made headlines in response to the Justice Department’s investigation into his handling of government records.
But being the anti-Trump party won’t be enough. If Biden wants to shape the political narrative in congressional Democrats’ favor, he will have to do more to tell the country the story of his administration.
Telling the story of a presidency is part of what leaders do. When there is immense legislative output, as we have now seen during the Biden administration, presidents have worked hard to connect the dots for voters in order to drive home how new laws will make a positive difference in their lives. This can also be a branding exercise, as shown by President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”
When FDR accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932, he promised a “new deal for the American people.” The phrase remained a powerful framework though which voters could understand what he was trying to do as he vastly expanded the reach of government in American life. Not only did each new program aim to ameliorate the devastating effects of the Great Depression, but the administration also sought to create a new level of security and support – through unemployment compensation, agricultural support, social security, unions and more – for working Americans.
In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson was looking for a way to explain his goals for the country. As he embarked on one of the most ambitious expansions of government since the New Deal, Johnson understood that the language he used would be important. He enlisted the help of Princeton history professor Eric Goldman and speechwriter Richard Goodwin, who helped him conceive of and coin the phrase “Great Society.”
Through a “Great Society,” Johnson offered a vision of how the federal government could help every individual become more self-sufficient and independent, ultimately obtaining the tools that were needed to prosper in the growing economy. As LBJ said at the University of Michigan in 1964, the Great Society “rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But this is just the beginning. The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talent. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness … The Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed.” In other words, his policies would help an already prosperous nation do better and to bring everyone into the fold.
Other presidents have relied on slogans to convey their stories. President Harry Truman had his “Fair Deal” and, of course, Trump sold his agenda around “Making America Great Again.” Legislative leaders have used this too, such as when Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994 by promising a “Contract with America.”
These slogans give Americans a concise way to understand what these politicians stand for – and their repeatability helps amplify any political victories won.
What’s Biden’s vision? Despite his legislative breakthroughs on Covid-19, infrastructure, health care, climate change and more, the answer to this question remains unclear. He has tried on different approaches and appeals with varying success, whether it be building back better or defending democracy at home and abroad.
What’s clear is that the President has been committed to what might be called a public investment society. He sees that the federal government has a huge role to play in devoting resources to areas of the economy and parts of society that need more support. The goal is to help the middle class grow, ensure the future of our planet and preserve our democratic process.
Telling this story and offering Americans a simple way to understand what he is doing and what his party aspires to do after the midterms would be enormously helpful as Democrats hit the campaign trail in coming weeks. Encapsulating his vision in clear and concise terms could make the difference for Biden and the Democrats in what promises to be a tight midterm election. Warning about the dangers of a radicalized Republican Party is a powerful message, but so too is offering a path forward for a better America.
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