WASHINGTON - The country is at an inflection point, as President Joe Biden likes to say. So, too, is Biden's presidency, as he prepares to compete for a second-term in office.
Biden's descriptions of how infrastructure investments will benefit middle class families are not resonating with blue-collar workers - particularly white voters who didn't attend college. Many defected from the Democratic Party over the last decade and offered Biden lukewarm support in the last presidential election.
"It's about both actions and words," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and close ally of Biden. "People have to see how that connects to their everyday lives."
Ahead of an expected reelection announcement in the coming weeks, Biden is making a concerted effort to bring working-class Americans back into the fold. His first stop on his post-State of the Union tour will be at a union-run apprenticeship and training facility in Wisconsin, a state that epitomizes the challenges that Democrats face in the 2024 election with independents and workers who lost jobs amid the decline in American manufacturing.
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A little more than two years ago, Biden won just enough of these voters to narrowly win Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan - three critical Rust Belt states that carried former President Donald Trump to a surprise victory in 2016.
Biden is seeking to capture more of their support now by stressing the "good-paying union jobs" being created by his infrastructure and manufacturing investments. He's called for an end of "trickle-down economics," arguing that hard-working American workers just "need a shot."
He told members of the Democratic National Committee gathered in Philadelphia last weekend that after corporations shipped manufacturing jobs overseas, the middle class was "hollowed out," and many working-class Americans came to believe the party had stopped paying attention to them.
"Did you ever think we'd be in a situation where blue-collar workers are voting Republican?" Biden said. "No, no, we gotta be honest, man, because they think we forgot them. They think we don't care."
The struggle is one that lawmakers in manufacturing-heavy states such as Pennsylvania, where Biden was born, have been warning the Democratic Party abofor years, as the party has relied increasingly on college-educated voters with higher incomes in cities and suburbs.
Rep. Brendan Boyle said he co-founded the congressional Blue Collar Caucus after workers who had typically been the "heart and soul" of the party voted Republican in the 2016 presidential election. Biden was the group's first guest speaker when the caucus launched.
"The whole point was about how the Democratic Party absolutely needed to do better in terms of messaging for working-class voters because, frankly, there was very little of it in the 2016 campaign. So Joe Biden is someone who clearly gets that," Boyle, D-Pa., said.
"He gets it intellectually, but more importantly, he gets it because of where he grew up, where he's from," Boyle said.
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Voters, though, are not connecting the president's claims that "the Biden economic plan is working" to their own financial situations - even as the nation last week celebrated a robust jobs report and a drop in unemployment to a nearly 54-year-low.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week found 41% of Americans believe their financial situation has gotten worse since Biden was elected, compared to just 16% who said it has gotten better.
"He's gotta get with working men and women," said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich, as she relayed a confrontation she had with union members in which she defended Democrats' record under Biden's tenue.
Democrats are still chaffed by the erosion of support among blue-collar voters when Hillary Clinton topped the Democratic ticket. Clinton famously did not visit Wisconsin during the general election.
Dingell criticized Clinton for avoiding union halls in Michigan, where she would have been confronted about her position on trade and encouraged Biden not to make the same mistake.
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Concerns about Biden's age, 80, remain among many Democrats, yet no viable primary challenger has emerged and calls for Biden not to run quieted after the party exceeded expectations in the midterm elections.
Allies close to Biden expect the president to announce his reelection bid in March or April and say it's no longer a question of if he will run but when he will announce.
At the DNC meeting, Biden was met with cheers of "four more years." Party members later passed a resolution in support of his reelection.
DNC Chair Jaime Harrison in an interview afterward recited Biden's accomplishments, from student loan debt relief to the eviction moratorium during the pandemic and expanded health care benefits.
"And that's what we will sell over the course of the next few years as we go into the presidential race. I have no doubt that not only will Joe Biden be our nominee, but Joe Biden will get reelected. If people haven't learned anything yet, I hope they learn very soon, never bet against Joe Biden," Harrison said.
Biden's allies characterize the president's accomplishments as historic, arguing he overcame a pandemic and a razor-thin Democratic majority in Congress to piece together one of the most prolific first terms ever. They believe Biden can make the case that his administration is making progress, but it has more work to do, as he seeks four more years in office.
"None of us have done a good enough job of messaging the work that we've gotten done," Dingell said. "He's human. He was the right person, when this country needed to heal and come together. He has more compassion and empathy and understanding of what the real world is like than any president I have ever known."
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Americans disconnected from Biden's accomplishments
Ron Klain, the outgoing White House chief of staff, reeled off Biden's wins at a good-bye ceremony last week: signing the largest economic package since the Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal "while managing the largest land war in Europe since" Harry Truman;" achieving the biggest infrastructure package since Dwight D. Eisenhower; the most judges confirmed in a first term since John F. Kennedy; the second largest health care bill since Lyndon B. Johnson; the most significant gun control bill since Bill Clinton and the most robust climate bill in U.S. history.
"Now that's not bad," Klain said. "Especially not bad for a president and a team that was written off for dead."
Voters are struggling to identify what he has achieved, however. Sixty-two percent of Americans said Biden has accomplished "not very much" or "little or nothing," in the same Washington Post-ABC News poll, while only 36% said he has accomplished "a great deal" or "a good amount."
"I think the greatest frustration for Democrats across the board is how little penetration the tremendous accomplishments have had," said Celinda Lake, a pollster for Biden's 2020 presidential campaign who conducts focus groups with voters.
Lake said a feeling of instability among voters has made it hard for Biden's accomplishments to resonate, and the scale of the president's agenda has often muddled the message. "Ironically, it would have been easier to penetrate if the man had gotten three things done instead of 300," Lake said.
As Biden shifts to campaign mode, Lake said the president must remind Americans about the progress with repetition, and it "needs to show up at people's kitchen tables."
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Above all, the president needs to convince non-college educated women, particularly those 50 or older -a demographic that is the target of the president's working-class rhetoric, Lake said. These are the voters who could decide whether Biden can again carry critical states in the Midwest.
"They're the No. 1 target for anybody right now," Lake said. "You can see both parties targeting them."
Cedric Richmond, a senior DNC adviser and former Biden aide, said the president "can't say enough about how much he's done. Because people are so busy living their own lives that a lot of people don't know all of their accomplishments."
Biden has aggressively hit the road to highlight bridges, tunnels and other projects finally under construction more than one year after the 2021 passage of his infrastructure package. He visited New York last week, in addition to Pennsylvania, and will travel this week to Florida, as well as Wisconsin.
"Constantly showing up makes a difference," said Boyle, the Philadelphia-area congressman, of Biden's frequent visits to his state. "The first rule of politics is, you gotta show up."
Reach Francesca Chambers at @Fran_Chambers and Joey Garrison @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden eyes 2024 reelection: blue-collar voters a top concern