Since the Trump era, Democrats have relied heavily on oppositional, dark warnings about Republicans. That might be about to change.
Though he hasn’t officially announced it yet, President Joe Biden has been acting like he’s on the campaign trail for some time now. Tuesday’s raucous and rowdy State of the Union speech wasn’t just the latest, most visible sign that Biden is in campaign mode; it also foreshadowed just how different the 2024 campaign will be from other elections in the last decade.
During his State of the Union speech, Scranton Joe showed up not just to take the boos from House Republicans in stride, but also to lay out a possible 2024 slogan (to “finish the job”), and make a positive case for Democrats. It was a different kind of political messaging for a party that, since 2016, has been accused of being too reactive and too defensive when confronting Republican attacks.
Vox spoke to several Democratic strategists who all view Biden’s speech as a kind of preview of a larger shift in how he and Democrats will press their case during the 2024 campaign. The Biden campaign is likely to be less oppositional and more optimistic, with less focus on highlighting how bad the other side is, and more attention on imagining how much more Democrats can accomplish with four more years in power. (The White House declined to comment on its approach.)
Biden has a lot to work with. Despite having some of the worst approval ratings for a second-year president and an economy in rough shape in 2022, the president can now boast of record-low unemployment, a less threatening pandemic, and a string of legislative victories that are now taking effect, including elements of the Inflation Reduction Act, a sweeping infrastructure, health, and climate bill passed last year.
“He feels confident in his record, in what he’s going to be presenting to the American people,” Chris Moyer, a longtime Democratic strategist and presidential campaign veteran, told me. “There is a thirst for optimism and not the same old negativity in politics that drives people to really hate following politics.”
That’s not necessarily how Democrats have run their campaigns in the Trump era and even into Biden’s presidency. Since the 2016 election, much of Democrats’ political strategy has been to run vocally and clearly anti-Trump, anti-MAGA Republican campaigns. This approach fueled much of the closing message of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and boosted the 2018 blue wave and 2020 Biden victory, when Biden cast the election as a battle between him and Trump’s “season of darkness in America.” That kind of message also helped Democrats defy the odds during the 2022 midterms.
But 2024 offers Biden a different opportunity, as an incumbent, to make a proactive case for the government’s role as a force for good, and a hopeful vision for improving the middle and working classes. “In the  midterms, there was a split in thinking about how Democrats should campaign. Democrats — congressional Democrats — in general have a hard time talking about their accomplishments in a cohesive way,” Rodell Mollineau, a senior adviser to the pro-Biden super PAC Unite the Country, told me. “Biden’s stubbornness and his realization that, ‘Hey, we got a lot of stuff done, and we shouldn’t hide it,’ was helpful in the midterms and shows his political instincts.”
Mollineau told me that he sees parallels between the 2010 midterms, Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, and the current political moment. During the 2012 campaign, Democrats were uncertain about how positively to talk about the economic recovery, given its slow pace and the “shellacking” they had received in 2010. The post-Covid economic recovery, meanwhile, has been faster than the post-Great Recession economic recovery. But amid a period of high inflation, Democrats faced criticism last year for not engaging Republicans hard enough on economic arguments.
Despite some terrible polls assessing their handling of the economy, voters, in the end, didn’t punish Democrats as severely as expected, and if economic trends continue to show improvement, Biden might enter 2024 with the upper hand on the issue, while Republicans are cornered into a cultural, anti-“woke” crusade. “There’s this divide between thinking ‘you shouldn’t tell people stuff they don’t believe’ if they feel they are being poured upon, and the positive economic indicators we are seeing now,” Mollineau said. “Biden can go out there and talk about these accomplishments if the economy continues on the trend that it is, and people will start to buy into this idea as well.”
That positive case is also possible because Biden has the advantage of incumbency. After a chaotic first two years, many of the president’s key legislative victories, particularly the Inflation Reduction Act and the investments of the CHIPS and Science Act, will finally begin to become more apparent this year — something the White House has been arguing for months, and which will become a clearer message as the president and his Cabinet blitz across the country to talk about his accomplishments. Already, Biden has visited Wisconsin and Florida since his speech, to highlight infrastructure projects and some Republicans’ proposals to scrutinize Social Security and Medicare.
“The first entire year of the Biden presidency was consumed by a global pandemic that wiped out countless lives. You would look out of touch with the American people if you were saying how great everything was. Then year two, much of the narrative was ‘Democrats in disarray,’ they can’t get together, they can’t pass anything,” Kurt Bardella, a Democratic strategist and former Republican adviser, told me. “Well, here we are at the start of year three, and you’re finally in a position, post-Covid, post-legislative gridlock, where you can actually tell that positive story.”
It also helps that Republicans have chosen a doom-and-gloom political message, exemplified through Arkansas Gov. (and former Trump spokesperson) Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s State of the Union rebuttal. Choosing to hype up talk of gender pronouns, critical race theory, and Latinx is a calculated tactic among leading Republican presidential candidates like Trump and Ron DeSantis, who have engaged in a once-fringe but now normalized cultural crusade that most Americans might not understand.
This strategy for Republicans to go all-in on social issues while Democrats talk up the economy seems like an inversion of a long-running partisan messaging split, a shift toward Democrats taking control of the economic narrative. “Democrats have, for years, been kind of allergic to saying anything good about the economy, even when we’re in charge,” Matt Bennett, the co-founder of the moderate Third Way think tank told me, adding that the Obama administration was often careful about economic messaging. “What are we waiting for?” Bennett said. “I mean, I’ve been in politics for 35 years. In that 35 years, the economy has been essentially perfect for about two of them.”
That doesn’t mean Democrats need to cede the ground on social issues. Progressives, like Sawyer Hackett, a senior adviser to former presidential candidate Julián Castro, told me there’s a way to take on the culture war fights while still drawing up an optimistic vision for America. “We can tout our achievements,” Hackett said, “while still reminding voters that there’s so much more we can do if Republicans weren’t standing in the way.” Democratic messaging in culture war battles can protect vulnerable communities, Hackett said, and give Democrats “an opportunity for some mockery” of Republicans. That levity, Hackett said, can help Democrats hold on to parts of their base, like young voters, infrequent voters, and nonvoters.
Biden’s 2024 shift also offers Democrats a way to emphasize a populist road map for the economy, which former Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer has called a “blue collar blueprint to win reelection.”
Making smarter economic appeals will be crucial to rebuilding the Obama-era coalition of college-educated voters, Black and Latino voters, and working-class voters without college degrees. “We saw the beginnings of that in the speech,” Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, the co-founder of the progressive group Way to Win, said. “To have a story that goes up against those culture war attacks, it has to be a story of economic renewal that addresses and celebrates diversity, and that talks about the role of government in including everyone.”