WASHINGTON — Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., is the human embodiment of all the Democratic-leaning constituencies who are souring on President Joe Biden: He’s young, he’s progressive, he’s Black and Latino.
And the 26-year-old freshman believes the president is struggling with voters of his background because they haven’t heard a compelling agenda, outlining how Biden would improve their lives, that would motivate them to elect him to a second term.
“That’s the key to the re-election,” Frost, who sits on the Biden campaign's advisory board, told NBC News, warning that it’s “not enough” to tout the achievements of the last two years or trash likely GOP opponent Donald Trump. “We also have to talk about what are the plans for 2025, 2026 and beyond. And how does that fit into this future we’re fighting for? I think that’s really the key right now, especially for young, progressive voters.”
Biden is entering the election year with strikingly poor ratings among key Democratic-friendly groups who were critical to his 2020 victory. A recent NBC News poll found him trailing Trump nationally by 44% to 46% — and vastly underperforming his 2020 margins among Black, Latino and young voters under 35. The poll said his approval rating is a mere 31% among voters under 35, whom Democrats need to carry in big numbers to have a shot at victory.
In interviews, young voters who responded to the poll and aren’t sold on Biden said their lives haven’t improved much under his presidency, and they’re unsure that will change in a second term. They’re disappointed by his failure to codify Roe v. Wade and cancel student debt. They want more action on climate change (even though he signed the most robust climate action law in U.S. history) and they disagree with his support for Israel as it continues to bombard the Gaza Strip.
The contrast with Trump may bring some of them back into the fold. But the risk for Biden is that others could stay home or vote for a third-party candidate. Biden’s 2020 victory hinged on about 45,000 votes in three states — even a small drop-off could be fatal.
“They need to be inspired,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a Biden campaign surrogate. “These are voters who vote on moral principle and on an agenda, not based on what some surrogate tells them.”
Frost’s advice to Biden is to go bigger than in 2020, when he teamed up with progressives to lay out a sweeping agenda, which yielded mixed results in his first two years under Democrats’ wafer-thin majorities in Congress. “Young voters tend to have a short attention span,” Frost said, calling for “a bold climate agenda; an agenda focused on working-class people; canceling student debt.”
While the Biden campaign slogan is "finish the job," Democrats believe he needs to lay out what that means.
“These are the things that build this broad coalition,” Frost said. “There are valid concerns to have right now in terms of the polling. We have ample amount of time to fix this. But the thing that people need to realize is we’re trying to do better than we did in 2020.”
Progressives advise Biden to pick more fights
Progressive activists said they recently showed White House officials a survey, helmed by Data For Progress and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), which found that Biden’s broad ideas are popular — but likely voters have heard little about them. For instance, 90% of the voters they sampled support plans to lower prescription drug costs, but just 31% said they’ve “heard a lot from President Biden” about it. Similarly, about 90% support protecting funding for Medicare and Social Security, but just 20% say they've heard a lot from Biden about it; 85% favor going after junk fees, but 16% say they have heard a lot from Biden about it.
The activists' advice: Pick more fights with the GOP on those things.
“In this saturated news environment, drama breaks through —including with young voters,” said Adam Green, PCCC co-founder. “It was smart for the president to go to Lauren Boebert’s district to criticize her opposition to new laws that invest in climate jobs, tax big corporations and fight big drug companies to lower prices.”
The specifics of Biden’s second-term agenda are hazy. His campaign website offers no policy platform. In speeches, he has discussed goals like a billionaire minimum tax to boost funding for child care and elder care, but he hasn’t fleshed them out like he did in 2020.
In an interview, White House deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed said Biden's agenda includes steps to lower prescription drug costs, tackle price gouging, target junk fees, $35 insulin "for everyone," a federal voting rights law, extending Affordable Care Act subsidies and "defending and strengthening democracy."
“He has a robust agenda that he pushes all the time. We’d like to get some of it done with this Congress, but we’ll definitely be pushing it in the year ahead and with the next Congress,” Reed told NBC News. “He has gotten more done in 2½ years than any president in our lifetime has done in the first term. But we also propose more that he wants to get done in the years ahead.”
Other aspects of Biden’s agenda are a mystery. Two advisers said he wants to “strengthen” Social Security but declined to say if he favors expanding benefits, as progressives have urged. The advisers said he wants to codify Roe v. Wade, but wouldn’t say if Biden supports piercing the Senate filibuster rule to protect abortion rights, without which a bill has no chance of passing.
'The right moment to maximize impact'
The Biden campaign said it has already spent six months on the air doing outreach to Black and Latino voters, and signaled that it will strategically roll out pieces of the second-term agenda. And he'll have a chance to lay out his vision for the nation early next year at the State of the Union address.
“President Biden is proud to run a historic agenda for Black and Latino voters, and our campaign has invested earlier and more than ever into reaching this important part of our coalition where they are,” Biden campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz said in an email. “Still 11 months away from an election most Americans are not focused on, we look forward to scaling our efforts across the board next year to mobilize our coalition, including speaking to them more about how a second Biden-Harris term will deliver on important issues for them at the right moment to maximize impact.”
Some allies say it can't come soon enough.
“In any campaign, presidential or otherwise, having an aspirational and strong vision for the future is a major part of what campaigning is all about. And it’s not enough for us to just talk about what we’re up against,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who supports Biden’s re-election bid. “It’s really important for us to say what we’re all doing this for.”
Khanna wants to see a “bold economic agenda” to lower the costs of housing, rent and child care. He said the Biden administration must also make a “course correction on the Middle East” by talking to voters who are “deeply troubled and pained with the killing of innocent children and civilians” in Gaza. “That is something that needs to be rectified if we’re gonna win re-election,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said Biden should call for changing how the filibuster works to advance his second-term goals.
“He knows how it used to work when there was a Senate code, and the Senate was not paralyzed by a 41-vote veto,” Merkley said. “And it is paralyzed now.”
In 2020, Biden partnered with the Democratic runner-up, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on a “unity” agenda to bridge the left and center. Sanders said Biden should lay out his 2024 plans.
“It’s important to tout what you’ve accomplished. But it is probably more important to talk about what you hope to accomplish in the next four years,” Sanders said in an interview. “He also has to lay out an agenda, which understands that we have a major health care crisis; we have a climate crisis; we have a housing crisis; we have massive income and wealth inequality. And that those are issues that he intends to tackle in the next four years.”