It’s the Inflation, Stupid
Joe Biden is engaged in the most extensive test of whether an American president can survive elevated levels of inflation since Jimmy Carter, and it’s not going well. The latest NBC News poll has Biden at a dismal 40% approval rating that, if it doesn’t change, will end the careers of Democrats up and down the ballot in November’s midterm elections. According to the poll, only a third of people approve of Biden’s handling of the economy, a low that most presidents have needed a recession to hit. This number has sunk steadily — along with Biden’s overall standing — from 52% in April of last year.
Inflation, which increased 7.9% from February 2021 to February 2022, is top of mind for voters. In the survey, 35% of people said cost of living is the first or second most important issue to the country. Climate change, in contrast, is at 17% and the pandemic at 8%. Given the choice, 68% would rather see Biden make reducing inflation and improving the economy his top priority, not the war in Ukraine. Elevated inflation represents a trifecta of doom for incumbent presidents. Does it impact the lives of people in a discernible way that they will notice no matter what the president says or the media covers? Yes. Does it cut the pay of workers unless there are steep increases in wages? Yes. Does it make the president seem powerless to control events? Yes. It was a common question in the media a while ago why people felt badly about a good economy? Paul Krugman wrote a column last year headlined, “The Making of a Feel-Bad Boom.” The question, though, was miscast. An economy where wages are effectively falling is not a good economy, at least it isn’t going to be felt by most people as such. Even though wages grew by a robust 5.1% year-over-year this February, that wasn’t enough to keep up with rising prices. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, real average hourly earnings declined 2.6% from February 2021-2022. During that 12-month period, the month-to-month change in real hourly wages was only positive in two months.
This is presumably why the NBC poll found that 62% say that their family income is falling behind, 31% say that it is staying about even, and just 6% believe it is going up faster.
Biden could combine the political talents of FDR and Reagan, the oratorical skills of Lincoln and JFK, and the common touch of Jackson and Truman, and this sense of falling behind would still be eating away at the foundations of his presidency.
Biden’s default has been to reassure the public that inflation is only transitory, to place it in the context of global supply chain issues beyond the control of any one person, and to blame various malefactors, whether meat companies or Vladimir Putin, for surging prices. But the buck still stops with the president, even if the dollar has less purchasing power than it did a year ago.
Biden hasn’t resorted to anything as readily mockable as President Gerald Ford’s “Whip Inflation Now,” or WIN buttons in 1974, but is flailing around nearly as badly (inflation did, by the way, drop steeply from 1974 to 1976, but it took a recession to achieve this momentary gain).
He’s mostly trying to rebrand spending initiatives he already supported as steps toward curbing costs. Regardless, the Federal Reserve has a huge role and, so far, it, like the administration, has been slow to catch up to the new inflationary reality.
The American public has had no such luxury. For it, increased prices are a daily lived reality, and no amount of spin is going to change that. Unless conditions markedly improve soon, Biden’s experiment is going to end very badly for him and his party.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.