To hear President Biden tell it, everything is going great. G.D.P. is up, the deficit is down. Semiconductors are being made in the U.S.A. again. Bridges and tunnels and roads are being fixed. There’s even, unlikely as it sounds, a manufacturing boom. During an appearance on Wednesday in Pueblo, Colorado, Biden touted all he’s done for that corner of southeastern Colorado. The event was held at a wind-turbine factory, where eight hundred and fifty new jobs had been created courtesy of his signature Inflation Reduction Act. Funding from his beloved infrastructure bill had brought in a new water pipeline to serve fifty thousand people and affordable high-speed Internet for local Native American communities. In theory, this was an official Presidential appearance; in practice, it had the feel of a campaign rally as Biden mocked Republicans for voting against all these good works—and then claiming credit for them anyway. Lauren Boebert, the district’s far-right representative, he said, is “one of the leaders of this extreme MAGA movement,” who called the Inflation Reduction Act a “massive failure.” “You all know you’re part of a massive failure?” he asked sarcastically, to laughs and cheers.
The speech was the latest in Biden’s nationwide “Bidenomics” tour. Since June, in dozens of appearances, he has trotted out variations on the celebratory message that his Administration has, against the odds, managed to revive the economy after the disruptions of the pandemic. “Bidenomics” banners festoon his appearances—they were hung on stage at the Colorado factory—and the slogan appears on the White House’s Web site when Biden’s speeches are live-streamed. “Folks, things are changing,” Biden proclaimed in Colorado. He concluded his pep talk with a vow: “We’re moving, folks. We are moving, and no one’s going to stop us.”
But there’s a problem. Bidenomics, at least as a political slogan, is a bust. The concept grew out of a classic Washington lament: We’ve done so much—if only the voters knew about it, surely we’d get credit. The experiment, however, has not worked. When I first wrote about Biden’s feel-good tour, in August, Biden had the lowest average approval ratings of any President since Jimmy Carter. Today, they’re even worse: 38.2 per cent approve, 54.8 per cent disapprove. Hard as it may be for many to believe, Donald Trump currently has higher favorable and lower unfavorable ratings than Biden. In many recent polls, including surveys of the handful of battleground states that are likely to decide next year’s election, Biden is losing to Trump. At best, Biden is now fighting Trump to a draw. The economy is polling as a vulnerability for Biden, not a strength. (Sample recent headline: “Voters Aren’t Believing in Bidenomics.”) If the goal of the Bidenomics campaign was to make Americans feel good about the President’s economic record, well, they don’t feel good.
A few weeks ago, when a Times/Siena poll showing Trump ahead in five swing states sent tremors through the anti-Trump establishment, the White House snarkily dismissed it, along with the warnings from commentators about Biden’s parlous political state. (It emerged that, privately, Biden had called the Democratic strategist David Axelrod, who circulated some of those warnings, a “prick.”) Since then, however, the fears have only intensified. But Democrats remain as perplexed as ever. Look at this great economic news, they’ll say, or the latest Trump outrage.
To be fair, there has been plenty of both. On Wednesday, as Biden was headed to Colorado, economists revised the growth forecast upward for the third quarter, showing that the U.S. economy grew by more than five per cent. As 2023 began, economists were nearly united in predicting a recession; now, even the once skeptical are acknowledging that a soft landing is likely—no recession, low unemployment, easing inflation, and interest rates (hopefully) coming down. Trump, meanwhile, is as terrifying as ever. On Wednesday, as Biden was touting his technocratic accomplishments, the ex-President was vowing to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, telling his social-media followers, “Obamacare Sucks!!!” He also warned that his indictments by federal and state prosecutors have opened “a very big and dangerous Pandora’s Box,” and claimed that he had “done more for Black people than any other President”—including, it seems, Abraham Lincoln. In a 2 A.M. posting on Thanksgiving, he went off on the “Racist & Incompetent Attorney General of New York State” who is prosecuting him; the judge and chief clerk in his New York business fraud trial; “Crooked Joe Biden”; “& all of the other Radical Left Lunatics, Communists, Fascists, Marxists, Democrats, & RINOS, who are seriously looking to DESTROY OUR COUNTRY.”
This is what Biden is up against. Bragging about your ability to deliver affordable high-speed Internet in underserved communities, no matter how laudable, is just not going to cut it when your opponent is talking about marauding brown-skinned hordes coming over the border to steal Americans’ jobs. Trump is Godzilla; Biden is . . . what exactly?
Amid the blinking-red warning lights, there is one siren that stands out—a vast number of Americans, including in Biden’s Democratic Party, believe that the country is on the wrong track. (The current average is around sixty-five per cent—roughly equivalent to where things stood in 2020, at the height of the COVID pandemic.) Voters are especially dour about the economy and the high price of everything compared with before the pandemic. Fair or not, Biden is getting the blame.
The most lucid—and worrisome—explanation I’ve seen is contained in a new poll of battleground states this month by the veteran Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. The big-picture findings are consistent with other recent bad polls for the incumbent: Trump is beating Biden by five points in these states and has higher approval ratings than the President, even among voting groups that form the Democratic base, such as African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, young voters, and college-educated women. How can this be?
Greenberg’s analysis is not complicated: “Above all, they are desperate about inflation and the cost of living: 64 percent choose it as the top problem—about 30 points higher than any other. The Biden presidency is defined by that inflation and the longer it extends the angry people get.” Greenberg’s report also suggests that it’s not just a matter of Biden’s message failing to resonate with important Democratic constituencies but of Trump’s succeeding. Causes that Trump tends to emphasize, such as cracking down on crime, homelessness, and the border, also poll strongly with “our own voters,” Greenberg warns. “Many in our base would welcome policies that come with a potential Trump term.”
But the biggest problem is at the grocery store. Voters like those in the poll don’t care about the rate of inflation slowing; they care that prices are much higher today. In another survey run by a Democratic-leaning group, Navigator Research, and released Wednesday, ninety-six per cent of respondents said they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about rising costs, and seventy-four per cent rated the economy as either “not so good” or “poor.” At such a moment, “Democrats talking about this strong economy and things moving in the right direction sounds like you are talking about a different country,” Greenberg observed. This is both common sense and one of the more damning assessments I’ve seen of the White House’s ill-conceived Bidenomics tour.
So what is there to be done about it? When I spoke by phone with Greenberg this week, he told me that he hopes the poll results are “searing” enough to persuade Biden and his campaign “to make a turn that the country wants him to make.” Greenberg suggests moving away from asking the voters to reëlect Biden because of what he’s already done and toward economic populism of the liberal, non-Trump variety—calling for higher taxes on billionaires, for example. In his remarks Wednesday, Biden did just that, though the line seemed awkwardly cut-and-pasted into his standard upbeat stump speech. NBC noted that, while the Bidenomics banners still decorated the stage in Colorado, Biden has actually stopped using the term itself in his speeches since the beginning of November. Perhaps the pivot has begun.
But, oh, the hour is late. The Iowa caucuses that mark the official start of the 2024 election are just forty-six days away. When I asked Greenberg whether he could recall an example of an incumbent President facing such a dire situation so close to the election year and digging out of it, he demurred. The silence was awkward—and telling. ♦