DNC ad campaign puts Biden’s face on his administration’s early victories

    biden 100 days billboard
    The Democratic National Committee is putting this billboard up in 20 cities, including Milwaukee, starting April 26. (DNC photo)

    With an eye toward the milestone of President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office on April 30, the Democratic National Committee began ramping up an ad campaign on Monday touting the administration’s track record out of the starting gate.

    A billboard greeted northbound drivers approaching Milwaukee’s airport on Interstate 94 this morning with Biden’s face, proclaiming (in all caps) that “America is back on track!” and boasting “Vaccines in arms. Checks in hands. More jobs.”

    ARPA billboard March 2021
    This Democratic National Committee billboard was up in Milwaukee in mid-March. (DNC photo)

    Similar campaigns are running in 20 cities around the country. The new Milwaukee billboard follows one in early April promoting the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) that Congress passed and Biden — who sought the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief and economic stimulus package — signed. A mid-March billboard coincided with the delivery of $1,400 checks that were part of ARPA; that ad pointedly called out Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) for his “no” vote on the legislation.

    In Green Bay during the week of April 19, the DNC put up a TV ad praising ARPA, and in Madison the party took out a daylong digital ad on the Wisconsin State Journal homepage thanking Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) for her vote on the legislation.

    Publicity material for the campaign localizes the statistics. Of 84 million U.S. adults to get fully vaccinated, 1.7 million are in Wisconsin, the DNC talking points stress. The ARPA checks went to 89% of Wisconsin adults (3.8 million people) and 88% of Wisconsin children (1.3 million).

    The campaign is not quite a first. Donald Trump’s campaign put out a TV ad on May 1, 2017, after his first 100 days in the White House. That was a period marked by “terrible policies and governing incompetence,” says University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Mark Copelovitch.

    No such ad blitz marked Barack Obama’s first three months as president in 2009.

    “Obama’s first 100 day were dominated by the ‘firefighting’ stage of the financial crisis and the immediate policy responses,” says Copelovitch. But his administration’s responses — including an auto industry bailout and a stimulus bill in response to the 2008 crash — were too small, he adds, with “too many tax cuts, too little public investment and very little for the ‘average voter.’”

    That arguably would have given copywriters less to celebrate, especially with unemployment stuck above 8% into that summer.

    But Obama’s style and persona also might have played a role, says UW-Milwaukee journalism professor Mike Mirer.

    “Obama was front and center every day in a way that Biden definitely isn’t,” says Mirer. He suggests that with the media riveted on him and as the spokesman for his policies, Obama “was such a focal point that everybody who is paying attention would have heard about it” — no ad campaign necessary.

    To be sure, that difference might also reflect how the pandemic has interrupted public life. But in executing policy, Biden’s first few months have set him apart from both of his predecessors, according to Copelovitch.

    “He has placed tackling the two most urgent problems facing the country —  COVID/vaccines and the economic recovery — front and center, and he has made massive, tangible progress on both issues,” Copelovitch says. “The contrast with Trump’s unfocused incompetence, on the one hand, and Obama’s failure to ‘go big’ on economic relief that benefits voters, on the other, really could not be greater.”

    All that may give the president’s political allies reason to celebrate. But a changed media landscape probably makes it a necessity as well.

    With the rise of social media and splintering of communication channels in the dozen years since Joe Biden took the office of vice president, it’s no longer possible to rely on the idea that policy will sell itself, says political communications consultant Joe Zepecki, a veteran of the Obama administration — if indeed it ever did

    “You always have to be telling your story,” Zepecki says.

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.