President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the November jobs report, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in Washington. AP Photo/Evan Vucci Credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

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Last month’s unemployment numbers, reporting the fewest new applicants over more than 50 years, showed the difference.

Trump would have trumpeted that news and claimed that it was due to his historic efforts. No matter the truth of his claim, you could not have missed that the news was good, unusual and important. If you might consider voting for Trump, his loud and proud announcement could have left a favorable impression.

Biden failed to aggressively link himself to that good news. It passed in the daily parade of “breaking news,” but without the fanfare and credit-taking of his predecessor. The low unemployment sign-ups could boost an incumbent president, but not Biden.

The Democrats seem to follow a Republican tactic — trickle down. The GOP often argues that when the rich do well, benefits trickle down to workers. The Democrats seem to favor trickle down news. They expect benefits from their policies will effortlessly gain them political support from grateful recipients.

That approach failed for Barack Obama. In 2010, after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the Republicans attacked it. The Democrats offered no coordinated national support, and the party was drubbed in the congressional elections. Obama’s good deed did not trickle down, at least not then.

The New York Times headlined “the disconnect between Biden’s popular policies and his unpopularity.” It cited programs that had brought direct and immediate benefits to people, but who claim he hasn’t helped them. 

Maybe they separate the president from his policies. Maybe they are disappointed that he hasn’t ended COVID-19, his major focus at the outset.

The Times notes that other Democratic presidents also did not gain the acclaim Franklin D. Roosevelt received for his popular policies. But it misses the fact that FDR was a master of public relations and kept the focus on himself. Similar to Trump, he was always in the news and elicited strong reactions for or against him.

Biden is hampered by a splintered party. “Every little movement has a meaning all its own” was an old pop tune. The late Frank Mankiewicz, a true political insider, flipped it, noting that having many reform agendas meant “every little meaning has a movement all its own.” 

Progressive groups saw Biden’s victory and Democratic congressional control as a rare opportunity to undertake major social legislation and for each to achieve its desired reforms. His inability to deliver on all their hopes has deflated their enthusiasm, weakening the Democrats’ chances of preserving their control after the 2022 elections.

On the right, moderate Democrats led by Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia resist major reforms and worry about losing swing supporters to the Republicans. Manchin has a critically needed vote in the Senate and has blocked large parts of Biden’s social program, strong election reform and ending the filibuster.

As a conciliator, Biden has tried not to confront Democrats whose support he needs, and has sought little recognition for his significant changes in government policy. It would be unrealistic to believe that Biden could have satisfied House progressives while pleasing moderate Manchin in the Senate.  

In fact, he will have done well to get COVID-19 recovery spending, infrastructure and some major social policies adopted. Economic uncertainty and his public struggles with Democrats may cost him popularity. Perhaps he counts on using next year purely to campaign on his achievements. But he has to come back from a low point.

Gaining votes may be as much a matter of political packaging as about what’s in the package. Biden could pay for being too conciliatory. As a result, he has not aggressively promoted his role in producing major new initiatives designed to put money into the pockets of average people or deal with COVID-19.

He does not project the image of a powerful president who gets things done. Perhaps he needs to resist Manchin, even at the risk of losing his vote on a major issue. Does Manchin really want to take sole responsibility for killing his president’s proposal? If so, can Biden gain some esteem for fighting for himself?

Biden needs to have a strong, clear message. He has been in office for less than a year, and the progressives expected too much, too fast.  Biden could claim his efforts are a work in progress. He needs stronger Democratic congressional control, which calls for Democratic unity not Capitol Hill internal infighting.

If they are to succeed, Biden and the Democrats should understand that good deeds do not trickle down to people, but must be sold to them. People are not grateful beneficiaries; they are voters who respond to strong political messages.

In short, Biden could learn from FDR and maybe even from Donald Trump.

Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.