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Empathy, not argumentation, is how Democrats try to focus economic message

Obama told House Democrats on the campaign trail to recognize the pain and struggle families are experiencing.
Image: 2022 King Holiday Observance Beloved Community Commemorative Service
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., at the King Holiday Observance Beloved Community Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Jan. 17.Paras Griffin / Getty Images filw

WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama in a closed-door meeting on Thursday evening advised House Democrats to recognize the pain and struggle American families are experiencing as the legislators set out to campaign this year, according to multiple sources familiar with the discussion at the meeting. 

He told House Democrats in a 70-minute virtual meeting that it’s been a tough couple of years for Americans, who have navigated a pandemic, interrupted schooling and experienced difficulties finding child care while inflation has stretched the dollar. He encouraged Democrats to connect with voters and avoid focusing on what Democrats have been unable to accomplish. 

“Acknowledge the pain that people feel,” one House Democrat who was at the virtual meeting said of Obama’s message. “Empathize with them and agree with them” and resist acting like a policymaker, the lawmaker said. 

The former president’s advice comes as Democrats enter a perilous campaign season with an ongoing pandemic and mixed economic indicators. They have so far failed to pass two major pieces of legislation that they spent the better part of a year promoting. Polls show that President Joe Biden’s approval ratings have sagged into the low 40s and generic ballots show that Democrats are barely outpacing Republicans in congressional races. 

Obama urged Democrats to avoid falling into the trap of drawing attention to what they weren’t able to do, such as not passing voting rights legislation and the $1.7 trillion Build Back Better agenda that addresses climate change and advances social programs.

Obama encouraged Democrats to listen to parents' frustrations that child care is scarce, and said members who are also parents and can relate should offer a shared experience. “Acknowledging the difficulties of these days and express empathy,” a second lawmaker said of Obama’s message. 

When pressed about economic indicators, Biden has often tried to paint a rosy picture, pointing to job numbers that show employment increasing around the nation.

But lawmakers appear to be opting more for Obama's approach.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, R-Ga., who is expected to face one of the most difficult campaigns this year, recently released a campaign ad in which he said, “People are hurting. People are tired.”

Warnock, who noted that he was a pastor, goes on to say, “What I want the people of Georgia to know is that I see you. I hear you. I am you.”

Republicans see this as weakness. They say that when Democratic candidates have to acknowledge that things aren’t going well under a Democratic-controlled government, it is evidence that Democrats have few good communications options. 

Senate Republicans have focused their campaign message on inflation and the economy, holding nearly weekly press conferences in which they blame Democratic policies for the rising cost of staples such as food and gas. More than 70 percent of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction, according to a January NBC News poll. 

Before the session with Obama, pollsters at an earlier meeting told House Democrats that people believe inflation is real and harmful, sources who attended the virtual meeting said. 

Sen. Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat, said addressing people’s struggles is important. Rising prices is “what we’re talking about” on the campaign trail, he said, adding, “folks really feel this.” 

This week he introduced legislation that would eliminate half the federal gas tax to bring down prices, following a letter he sent to Biden on the same topic. He invited Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to Arizona to talk about what the government is doing to try to bring down the price of meat. He wrote a letter to Biden asking him to address food costs.

“It’s the thing voters are thinking about more than anything else,” Kelly said.  

Obama said that Democrats do have accomplishments and voters need to be reminded of them. Sources say Obama guided the members on how to do both. Obama also told House Democrats not to skirt their accomplishments, pointing to the largest infrastructure bill in generations and assistance in the last Covid relief bill, the American Rescue Plan. 

“I think you should acknowledge that the last two years have been the toughest years in most of our lives but you should also say I feel a real sense of uplift,” said Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.