If Americans are “really, really down,” as President Joe Biden suggests, it’s hardly surprising.
Many key aspects of economic, social and national life that were once viewed as smoothly running certainties are out of joint. The Covid-19 pandemic, though it has eased its deadly grip, has left a complicated legacy of challenges that are still disrupting daily life. Some are aggravations – like the more than 800 airline flights cancelled on Sunday. Others threaten Americans’ economic prospects and sense of safety and wellbeing, like the growing fears of a recession.
Such an atmosphere is sure to breed new turmoil in a nation seeing widening ideological divides ahead of midterm elections that are likely to cause more dysfunction if power is split in Washington between Republicans and Democrats. And it almost guarantees years of political bickering ahead of the 2024 presidential race, which may hamper the nation’s capacity to solve any crisis.
Acute problems include record gasoline prices. Families are struggling to cope with the soaring costs of food and vital goods. Some major cities are failing to manage a homelessness crisis. Baby formula shelves are still often empty. And summer getaways are hampered by an airline industry knocked off balance by Covid-19. While vaccinations and less deadly variants reduced the threat of the virus, it’s still disrupting business, schools and summer camps.
The political split in the country, meanwhile, is exemplified by the tortuous effort to pass even rudimentary firearms safety measures in the Senate. While liberals watch the ever-escalating death toll from mass shootings with horror, conservatives who believe all gun rights are at risk make it difficult for Republican lawmakers to compromise. Political divisions are also underscored by the mixed reception of televised hearings of the House select committee probing the US Capitol insurrection. The panel is showing just how close the US came to an authoritarian takeover with ex-President Donald Trump’s coup attempt. But the new evidence is being largely ignored by his supporters, reflecting the GOP’s turn against democracy and raising the stakes for the next elections.
A tense national mood is likely to be exacerbated if, in what would be twin triumphs for conservatives, the Supreme Court rules against majority public opinion and loosens gun restrictions and overturns a woman’s right to an abortion in the coming days. Already, a man has been charged with trying to kill conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, reflecting the charged atmosphere surrounding the court and the politicized issues it’s set to rule on.
Things are unsettling abroad as well. The United States is bankrolling a war against Russia in Ukraine, which – despite Biden’s success in reviving the West’s Cold War front against Moscow – is turning into a costly stalemate. A building superpower showdown with China will stretch US resources and a new nuclear crisis with Iran may shortly join the continuing one with North Korea.
These are undoubtedly troubled times. But some perspective is also in order. Biden is right to highlight the strong job growth that has taken unemployment to such low levels that it could cushion the impact of a potential recession set off by the Federal Reserve’s aggressive attempt to cool inflation. And for the first time in two decades, the US does not have troops on the ground in a major war overseas. A snapshot of almost any moment in US history could reveal political struggles over the destiny of the country and the scope of rights conferred by the Constitution. Even if a recession comes, there is hope that it won’t be within the scale of the 2008 financial crisis or the Great Depression nearly 100 years ago, though that will be of little consolation to anyone who loses their job.
The crush of current crises will inevitably have political reverberations most immediately for Democrats in Congress who are facing a terrible environment less than five months before Election Day. Midterm elections are typically wounding for first-term Presidents. Biden’s eroded approval ratings and the White House’s difficulty in projecting control threaten to hand both the House and the Senate to Republicans, prolonging a political age in which almost every election seems to turn into a repudiation of those in power and a recalibration of voters’ decisions from the previous election.
It is debatable just how much Biden could do to improve the economy and all the troubles that are afflicting the country. But his professed rationale for his 2020 victory – that he was chosen by voters to fix problems – is crumbling. And while the White House has taken multiple steps to fix things – including expansive use of war-time powers under the Defense Production Act, the releases of millions of barrels of oil from national reserves and mounting emergency flights of baby formula from abroad – its efforts have not always been effective.
When it comes to inflation especially, the White House has presented an often confusing political message as officials oscillate between saying there’s not much more Biden can do to highlighting multiple plans to show that the President understands the pressure on Americans. But given the reality of rising gas prices, Biden is a tough political spot – unable to take credit for positive aspects of the recovery since many people are simply not feeling the strength of the economy in their lives.
At times, Biden has appeared to be claiming credit for what works in the economy and blaming others for what doesn’t – rejecting criticism that his stimulus spending fueled inflation and branding high gasoline prices as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “price hike.” Last week, the President lashed out at big energy firms over their inflated profits, in what might be a smart political strategy to rally Democrats but may not help lower gas prices.
Biden’s remarks in an interview with the Associated Press last week that Americans are “really, really down,” after years of pandemic deprivations and political divisions, were consistent with his promise to always tell Americans the unvarnished truth. But they didn’t necessarily paint a picture of a President with the capacity to inspire the nation in hard times. This is especially problematic since his comments coincided with a pro-active attempt by the White House to dampen speculation about Biden’s reelection intentions amid increasing discussion about his age. He will turn 82 between the next presidential election and inauguration. Every White House assurance that he plans to run only fuels stories about Biden’s political plight.
But there would be far less Washington whispering about his future were economic conditions in a better place.
Things could get worse
The daunting reality for Democrats – and struggling Americans – is that things could get worse.
A combination of stubbornly high inflation and rising job losses in an economy slowing due to Federal Reserve action would be an even bigger political disaster for the White House. The administration already has limited credibility in talking about the economy after repeatedly downplaying the risks of risking inflation last year and insisting that it was a temporary phenomenon. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is one of the few officials to admit she got it wrong, as she did in a recent CNN interview. She insisted on ABC News’ “This Week” on Sunday that though inflation was “unacceptably high,” a recession was not inevitable. Brian Deese, the director of Biden’s National Economic Council, had a similar message on other Sunday talk shows.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, meanwhile, added to the messaging confusion about Biden’s upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia by saying that she thought Biden would meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom US intelligence blames for ordering the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden last week said he was not going to the kingdom to meet the Crown Prince but that he would attend an international meeting of regional powers at which he would be present.
The dancing on a rhetorical pin head reflects an apparent desire by the administration to mend relations with the Saudis to secure an increase in oil production that might bring gas prices down. But it’s also a reflection of the backlash Biden is facing from some Democrats over easing his position on a nation he once branded a “pariah.”
Back home, the administration’s struggles are bound to be good news for Republicans who are banking on major gains in the midterms and have an easy case to make that Biden’s economic plans are not working. Any improvements to the inflation picture are unlikely to be sufficient to shift the political environment before November. And a prolonged fight against rising prices and a possible dip into recession could haunt Biden as the 2024 campaign ramps up after November.
This is giving Democrats heartburn as Trump shows every sign of launching a campaign for his old job – despite the evidence of his extremism and abuses of power unveiled by the House panel in its televised hearings.