President Biden just had one of his better weeks. He delivered a well-received State of the Union address. His stewardship of the unified democratic alliance has exceeded expectations, while heroic Ukrainians have set off an unexpected outpouring of public excitement and admiration. By week’s end at least one poll showed a substantial lift in Biden’s approval rating, although it might well be an outlier.
On Friday, Biden could boast that the economy had created 678,000 jobs in February, reducing unemployment to a stunning 3.8 percent. (Upward revisions of 92,000 jobs for prior months suggested the economy has been stronger than reported.) Economist John Leer observed: “What this tells me is that the U.S. economy is open for business. Omicron is in the past, and businesses expect demand to remain strong going forward.” While the war’s potential effect on energy prices remains a worry, it’s hard to quibble with manufacturing growth, job creation and real wage improvements this large.
For months, Biden has received unremittingly negative coverage of his performance, the White House believes. Considering the economic recovery, his success in beating back covid-19, and passage of the American Rescue Plan and a huge bipartisan infrastructure plan, the Biden team should be forgiven for thinking it deserves a bit more credit.
Nevertheless, Biden has suffered from two developments, one for which he is responsible and the other far less so. The one of his making: Spending so much time on the failing Build Back Better plan, a fight that devolved into daily, negative coverage focused on the spoiler role of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and the package’s 10-year cost. Had Biden gone “smaller” or ended the BBB ordeal sooner he might have moved on to other things. Losing on voting rights further sapped his standing. Presidents do not get credit with their base for “trying” when they fail.
Biden is less responsible for the second factor dragging him down: inflation. The conventional wisdom that excess funding for the American Rescue Plan overheated the economy is highly suspect. Inflation was largely the result of an abrupt economic shutdown, built-up consumer demand and ensuing supply-chain disruption. On Friday, Biden made the case that “our economy roared back faster than most predicted, but the pandemic meant that businesses had a hard time hiring enough workers to keep up.” And “when factories close, it takes longer to make goods and get them from the warehouse to the store, and prices go up.”
A recent study from Moody’s Analytics supported that view, showing that the American Rescue Plan “contributed just one third of one point of inflation — i.e. inflation would be just 0.35 less without the American Rescue Plan.”
Few would have been pleased to forgo the American Rescue Plan’s benefits to save 0.35 percent of inflation. But pointing to a double-dip recession that didn’t happen and explaining that inflation is the province of the Federal Reserve does not make for effective political messaging. Voters will still blame the incumbent for price hikes — especially when Republicans insist the American Rescue Plan accounts for the entire problem. Understanding that the Fed must reduce inflation, Biden has settled for a batch of initiatives (e.g., attacking price gouging and releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve) that suggest he is focused, determined and aware of consumers’ plight.
Four factors, not all within Biden’s control, will largely determine whether his approval rating improves.
First, Ukraine’s struggle for democracy and self-determination has touched a chord with Americans, promoting hope and pride in democracy. Just as he suffered from the dispiriting scenes of the Afghanistan exit, Biden will benefit from the emotional lift Ukraine has given us, especially if he stands firm as the Free World’s resolute leader. Voters may not know a whole lot about foreign policy, but they still appreciate a president rallying the world to a noble cause.
Second, no one should minimize the impact of the transition to living with Covid. Putting away masks, returning to the normal rhythm of life, traveling more easily and simply knowing children’s schools won’t suddenly close should lift spirits and sustain the recovery. Biden can celebrate the sacrifice, grit and endurance of the American people; he, in turn, should benefit from the sense that “normal” is back. (And he deserves credit for the country’s mammoth vaccination program, improved access to testing and delivery of new treatments.)
Third, Biden must avoid initiatives destined to fail (a Build Back Better 2.0). He can focus on popular bipartisan proposals (his unity agenda) and on just a couple of the most popular items — green energy and containment of prescription drug costs. He can pair those with tax reform to shrink the deficit and promote tax “fairness.” He’ll either chalk up some wins or cause Republicans to squirm as they cast “no” votes on popular initiatives. In the same category of “pursuing winning policies,” Biden would be wise to champion a significant crime package that combines community policing, training and funding for additional police officers. (It wouldn’t hurt if he were also to take Republicans to task for venerating violence as “legitimate political discourse.”)
Finally and most important, as long as high inflation dominates the news, Biden and the Democrats will, deserved or not, face voters’ wrath. Demonstrating concern and addressing other drivers of price increases will not insulate Biden from blame if inflation numbers don’t drop.
Biden correctly observed that we have come through a grueling two years. As we emerge from the Covid recession era and celebrate democracy’s most valiant defenders, he finally has a foothold to climb out of the political ditch. At least he’s stopped digging.
Image Credits: President Biden answers questions from reporters Tuesday at the White House during remarks on coronavirus vaccines. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)