'Bidenomics' Won't Save This Presidency

Column: Joe Biden's problems run deeper than the economy.

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
June 30, 2023

President Biden's latest pitch for "Bidenomics" is an admission of weakness. Biden knows he's vulnerable. He and his team can read the polls. They can see that voters' dismal assessment of the economy is dragging him down.

Solution: Talk up job numbers and investment figures. Boast about factory construction. Note that inflation is on a downward slope. Highlight your ties to organized labor. Remind the electorate that you are doing your best to eliminate annoying consumer fees. Admit that more work needs to be done, but that America's brightest days are ahead. "There is nothing beyond our capacity if we work together," Biden said in Chicago on Wednesday. Clap, clap, clap. End of speech.

The strategy is familiar. Use rhetoric as a substitute for performance. If voters dislike what you are selling, don't change the product. Market it differently. Call it Bidenomics. Light fire once more to the "trickle-down" straw man. Barack Obama did this all the time.

Nor is an aggressive economic message new to Biden. His arguments in Chicago were the same ones he's been making for years. He rehearsed these lines at the last State of the Union address in February. Biden's job approval average that night: 43 percent. His approval average today: 43 percent.

The words have no effect. Why? Because neither the cleverest slogan nor the most eloquent spokesman can disguise the underlying reality: Not only has Biden presided over a decline in real average hourly earnings, his policies are responsible for the loss of purchasing power.

The worst inflation in 40 years did not come out of nowhere. It was goosed by Biden's American Rescue Plan Act. That bill, passed early in 2021, flooded a recovering economy with $2 trillion in fiscal stimulus on top of the trillions spent the previous year to sustain America during the pandemic. The spending splurge, in combination with restrictive energy and trade policies, generated the inflation that has dogged Biden's presidency.

Biden has no answer for it. He cherry-picks the positive data while hoping that the Federal Reserve and the tendency of economies to find equilibrium will solve the problem for him. All he needs is for inflation to reach 2 percent and for real hourly wages to climb into positive territory. Then he can declare victory. The tenor of his speeches would harmonize with the public mood. He could campaign for reelection not as the least bad alternative, but as a genuine bringer of prosperity.

Or so the theory runs. A lot must go right for the public to judge Bidenomics a success. The Fed, for example, must fine-tune its coming interest rate hikes. If not, the central bank could set off a long-predicted recession just as the presidential election gets underway. Higher interest rates might also trigger additional bank failures along the lines of spring's financial mini-crisis. Neither outcome is desirable; both are plausible. The Fed's track record is not encouraging. And inflation has been more persistent than anyone would like.

Biden faces other dangers. To quote the late great Jack Germond: When the economy is bad, it's the only issue. When the economy is good, different issues come to the fore. Issues that may not play to Biden's strengths.

Say Fed chairman Jerome Powell is a genius—in other words, suspend your sense of disbelief—and the economy avoids recession and financial implosion. Inflation subsides. Real wages recover and grow. Would Biden be a sure bet for reelection? He'd be helped, of course. But this economy is not the president's sole liability. The public doesn't just reject Bidenomics. It also rejects Bidenomics's namesake.

Biden's fitness for office is already in doubt. Americans have grave concerns over the 80-year-old president's physical and mental capacity. And people age in only one direction. Nothing in Biden's domestic program will make the president any younger. Not only do voters prefer the Trump economy—when real wages were rising faster than prices—they also say the 77-year-old former president is in better condition than his successor.

The worries over Biden's infirmity spill over into views of his vice president. Kamala Harris, who would inherit the office of president if something happens to Biden, is the most unpopular vice president in the history of the NBC poll. Bidenomics may make Democratic partisans feel better about the economy. Nothing can make them feel good about Harris.

Meanwhile, IRS whistleblowers have revealed the true meaning of Bidenomics: The term well describes the buckraking schemes that some members of the Biden family, including the president's son Hunter, have used to get rich while avoiding federal taxes. Biden's entanglement in this scandal is sure to grow in the coming year, as the House of Representatives and intrepid reporters seek to uncover, or restate, the details of the Biden family operation. What they find won't make the president more popular.

It would be a mistake to ascribe Biden's political position to the economy alone. A decline in the standard of living has interacted with, and intensified, the public's revised attitude toward Biden the man. No longer is he the genial grandpa who issues reassuring platitudes from his Delaware basement. He is rather a cranky and out-of-it octogenarian with a spotty record and an estranged relationship to the truth.

This transformation in how voters perceive Biden explains why the presidential election is competitive. Biden led Donald Trump throughout 2019 and 2020. Now the two candidates are neck-and-neck. Indeed, Trump is slightly ahead. The coming presidential election looks like it will resemble 2016 more than 2020. Which helps Donald Trump.

The nation is on autopilot, gliding toward a general election that voters do not want, determined by sure-to-be-narrow outcomes in three or four states: Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Nevada. The president's fate rests not on Bidenomics but on long-running trends in the electorate. Biden's future depends not on his agenda, nor on his charisma, but on the anti-MAGA coalition that cost Republicans in 2017, 2018, 2020, and 2022. He's counted on this coalition before. Will it save him again?