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Can Biden solve his economic messaging woes? One idea: Less talk about student loans.

The president has a deepening problem with voters when it comes to the economy and this week provided yet another wave of evidence.

First there was a widely noted New York Times/Siena poll of battlegrounds that found Biden trailing former President Donald Trump by wide margins on the issue. And that was followed by a Yahoo Finance-Ipsos survey that found similar voter dissatisfaction.

It's a problem that has been brewing for months and has kicked off a growing debate within the party about how to reverse the trend — or at least staunch the bleeding. An influential faction of Democrats will tell you that the party needs to rethink the economic issues they are focusing time and money on.

Their notion, which is backed up by new polling data also released this week, is that many of the issues Biden is best known for among voters may be the exact same ones dragging him down.

Put another way: Are voters hearing too much about things like student loan forgiveness and not enough about junk fees?

US President Joe Biden disembarks Air Force One at Chicago Rockford International Airport in Rockford, Illinois, on November 9, 2023. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
More talk about junk fees? President Joe Biden in Rockford, Ill., on Thursday. (OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images) (OLIVIER DOULIERY via Getty Images)

A new presentation by a Democratic group called Blueprint 2024 suggested that the answer is yes.

Blueprint's mission: try and isolate issues that are widely known, but not widely supported. Biden's ongoing push to cancel $10,000 in student debt is at the top of that list.

The poll of 1,063 voters was conducted from Oct. 26 to Nov. 2 and found that, on net, 68% of voters were aware of Biden's efforts in the student loan arena, but that the issue was divisive. While it might remain popular among Biden's base, it only garnered 5% net support among the wider universe of voters.

Other issues that stuck out on the group's data were things like sending military aid to Ukraine and wading into state policies around transgender issues. Voters are also ambivalent on those topics, while also being very well acquainted with Biden's record.

Biden is "being associated in the minds of voters with his most controversial policies, rather than his most broadly supported policies," argued Evan Roth Smith, a campaign consultant who oversaw the Blueprint 2024 survey, adding that student debt is the "leading example" of this.

The flip side of their results is another constellation of issues that are largely unknown, but that voters are very supportive of when they're made aware. A leading example of this include Biden's efforts to confront China on semiconductors, the ongoing campaign against "junk fees," and capping the price of prescription drugs.

The group's takeaways — especially when it comes to the issue of student loans — are sure to be hotly contested within the party in the months ahead.

Other voices in the Democratic party want to play up the student loan issue with some even launching groups— one example there is called Protect Borrowers Action — that have the express goal of capitalizing politically. The argument is that young voters, a group Biden desperately needs to activate in 2024, are behind him on student loans.

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the student debt relief portal beta test, in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House, in Washington, DC, on October 17, 2022. (Photo by Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
President Biden delivers remarks on the student debt relief in Washington in 2022. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images) (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI via Getty Images)

The strategy is also under debate in the political science community. A study of political advertising shared with Semafor by the American Political Science Review found that “popularism”— the approach espoused by some of these groups of focusing ad money on perhaps lesser-known positions that poll well —didn’t didn’t clearly win out in the data.

Biden and his aides have counseled caution in response to this week's polling, often noting that the numbers also looked dire for presidential incumbents like Barack Obama in 2011 and Ronald Reagan in 1983 before they ultimately won reelection the following year.

During a back-and-forth with reporters Thursday morning before a trip to Illinois, Biden downplayed the polls that showed him down, noting that others show him up in the race with Donald Trump.

'We’ve got our work cut out for us'

Whatever strategy it ultimately decides on, Biden’s 2024 campaign is likely to have ample resources to try and shape the 2024 conversation. It has set a goal of matching the $1 billion raised last time around for the coming election cycle.

Republicans, of course, are set to have an ample 2024 war chest of their own and often ridicule the efforts to massage Biden’s economic message. They argue that no amount of finesse will overcome voters who are focused intently on inflation. While price increases have been slowing lately, voters have seen their purchasing power diminish since Biden’s inauguration, a fact that GOP candidates note again and again, including at Wednesday night's primary debate.

Indeed, the Blueprint 2024 polling reveals a near-total voter focus on inflation with 64% of voters fixated on the issue. Voters also feel that Biden doesn't match their interest in the topic. Instead, many voters say Biden is putting his energy towards other economic issues like wages and jobs that they currently care less about.

Voters are "overwhelmingly focused on lower prices," said Blueprint's Smith in Wednesday's presentation. He added that Biden’s relative lack focus on the issue is a "really significant misalignment," which could be at the root of voters not giving Biden credit for an economy that has overall been performing relatively well.

What remains to be seen is how the case being made by Blueprint 2024 and others is received among D.C. decision makers — in addition to the larger question of whether there is even space for Democrats to change voter perceptions, at least when inflation trumps all else.

Another group pushing similar ideas is Data for Progress with Danielle Deiseroth, the group's executive director, acknowledging to Yahoo Finance that "we can't change 40 years of political precedent overnight." But she added optimistically that "there is a significant span of time between now and November of next year where there'll be a billion dollars spent to talk about President Biden's accomplishments."

Her group has also been counseling the idea of downplaying issues like student loans in meetings with party leaders — including a recent presentation at the White House. She said the reception has largely been positive. But perhaps the only thing the party as a whole agrees on at this point is that Biden has an uphill climb ahead on the issue of the economy.

Deiseroth added: "We’ve got our work cut out for us over the next year."

Ben Werschkul is Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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