Tuesday, Jun 11, 2024

The Biden White House Reality Problem

According to numerous media reports, one of the chronic problems facing the Biden White House is its inability to understand why the president’s job approval rating in the most recent public opinion polls has reached an all-time low. According to the moving polling average tracked by RealClearPolitics, Biden’s job approval has now fallen below the critical 40% level.

Biden’s collapsing popularity is also dragging down the electoral prospects for the rest of the Democrats. This has prompted widespread predictions, even among their own pollsters and political supporters, of defeat for many of the Democrat candidates running in this November’s midterm election across the country, and the end of hopes to revive Biden’s stalled progressive legislative agenda due the almost certain loss of the party’s slim margins of majority control in both the House and the Senate.

Crucially, the major topic of public and private discussion among Democrats has shifted from whether it is too late for Biden’s popularity to recover soon enough to salvage their prospects for the midterm election to just how big their losses will be in November, coupled with a debate over strategies for the party’s recovery in time for the 2024 presidential election.

The Cook Political Report recently upped its prediction of the scale of the expected GOP electoral victory in November. It issued a warning that “any Democrat [incumbent in Washington] sitting in a single-digit Biden seat…is at severe risk and even a few in seats [representing electoral districts or states] Biden carried by 10 to 15 points [in the 2020 election] could lose.”

This has prompted the National Republican Congressional Committee to expand its list of targeted Democratic-held House seats in the November election to 75, which is even more than the GOP gained during its two most recent landslide midterm victories in 1994 and 2010.


Democrat incumbents are becoming vocal in blaming the White House for their dimming prospects for reelection in November. They complain that the Biden administration isn’t addressing rising gas prices and food costs with anywhere near the same urgency their voters are demanding back home. They also blame the administration for failing to heed the warnings they received that closing a Michigan plant that produces much of the baby formula this country uses would soon create a critical shortage of this essential product.

Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy of Florida has publicly criticized the White House for its failure to put forward an “intellectually honest” plan to combat inflation, and rejecting a bill recently passed by her fellow Democrats in the House to crack down on alleged gas price gouging as the wrong answer to the problem.

“If I sound frustrated, it’s because I hear from my constituents,” Murphy said. “The [Biden administration] is struggling. This is not a time for political games. It’s not the time for finding bogeymen.”

When asked by reporters what they would need to see from their president to enable him to break out of his slump and regain his lost popularity with the American people, his fellow Democrats would often say a return to the bold approach and emphasis on popular and widely shared American values which characterized his inaugural address when he took office in January, 2021. At that time, he declared, “It is a time for boldness, for there is so much to do, And this is certain. We will be judged, you and I, for how we resolve the cascading crises of our era.”


During the early months of his presidency, before he lost the confidence of many congressional Republicans who knew him from his decades in the Senate, they were still willing to trust him when he reached out across party lines to negotiate bipartisan deals for the greater benefit of the country. If he had been willing to form an honest working relationship with them at that time to find mutually acceptable compromises, he could have accomplished many of his policy goals on a wide variety of domestic issues, including prescription drug price reforms, and improvements that would make the Obamacare health insurance program more affordable for middle class families.

But that trust was squandered when Biden, with the encouragement of his pick for Treasury Secretary, former Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen, decided to “go big” with an inflationary $1.9 trillion Covid relief package for an economy that was already strongly rebounding from the pandemic lockdowns. In doing so, he ignored accurate warnings from many Republicans, as well as former Clinton Treasury Secretary and chief economic advisor Larry Summers, that the excess stimulus risked igniting the forces of inflation which have now undermined public support for his presidency.

Biden also alienated the Republican senators who agreed in August 2021 to vote for his $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, by simultaneously pushing for passage, with Democrat support only, of his liberal Build Back Better plan. It would have spent an additional $3.5 trillion on a long list of proposals on the progressive wish list, many of which had little or nothing to do with the nation’s long neglected infrastructure needs. Biden and the Democrats then double-crossed those GOP senators by trying to make congressional passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill conditional on simultaneous passage or the Build Back Better bill, whose provisions were totally unacceptable to the Republicans.

That marked the end of any serious efforts by Biden to win GOP cooperation on any of the remaining items on his long legislative agenda list. That turned out to be a critical political mistake, because even though Speaker Nancy Pelosi was able to deliver a narrow Democrat majority to pass all the Biden administration bills that came to the House, moderate Democrat senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona were able to kill them all, including a scaled back version of the Build Back Better bill, by withholding their two votes in the 50-50 divided Senate.

Sinema’s main objections to Biden’s proposal appeared to be to the changes it would have made to the federal tax code. Manchin’s concerns were much broader, mostly based upon inflationary fears due to the massive amount of additional spending, but also including Biden’s green energy proposals, which would have been harmful to the coal mining industry which is crucial the economy of Manchin’s home state of West Virginia.


Manchin’s opposition to the Build Back Better proposal hardened as the rate of inflation steadily grew last year. In fact, by blocking passage of the measure, Manchin did the president and Democrats a favor, because it clearly would have significantly worsened their current inflation problem if it had been passed into law.

Manchin also raised objections to several other radical progressive proposal on Biden’s liberal legislative agenda. That has effectively killed Biden administration hopes for their passage by the evenly split Senate, because Manchin’s critical 50th vote, which would be necessary to enable Vice President Kamala Harris to break the 50-50 tie in favor of the Democrats.


Because Biden has been unable to get any of his significant legislative initiatives passed by the Senate since last August, he has been forced to abandon the bold approach he proclaimed in his inaugural address. Now, according to the Wall Street Journal, the White House is eager to agree to the passage of any watered-down version of Biden’s original proposals that Manchin would be willing to vote for. Now Mr. Biden faces different, unexpected tests, from the Ukraine invasion to the baby formula shortage.

The administration has also reduced the optimistic tone of its rhetoric, in an attempt to lower the expectations of the American people and prepare them for more disappointing economic numbers in the months ahead. A typical recent statement by a White House spokesman said that “stable, steady growth” is a sign of a healthy economy.

The White House also scaled back President Biden’s calls for far-reaching new gun control laws in the wake of a recent flurry of mass shootings. Now officials are praising a recently announced, scaled-back bipartisan agreement between Senate Democrats and Republicans which would add only a few minor tweaks to current federal gun control legislation. When asked about the very modest changes now being proposed, one senior White House official responded, “Any progress is progress. Is some progress better than no progress? Absolutely.”

This newly timid Biden White House approach has particularly exasperated progressive Democrats, such as Congressman Ro Khana, who has asked the White House to take a much bolder approach to halting the rapid rise in gas prices which have now exceeded $6 a gallon at the pump in his California district.

“There should be panic on gas prices… We need to understand that it is a crisis,” Khana said, adding that “We need to try different things,” including meeting with executives of oil-and-gas companies, a proposal which would have been unthinkable coming from a such committed progressive environmentalist just a few months ago.


The source of the frustration of elected Democrats whose seats are now at grave risk in the November elections due to the criticisms expressed by their constituents is not limited to the Biden administration’s failure to halt the 50% rise in gas prices since he took office. Their grievances also include the soaring food prices at the supermarket, the easily avoidable nationwide shortage of baby formula, the general breakdown of law and order prompting rising concerns over personal safety in cities across the country, as well as an epidemic of fentanyl overdose deaths, tied directly to the stubborn refusal by the Biden administration to halt the rising tide of human trafficking and drug smuggling at the Mexican border.

For a long time, Biden and his White House officials were mired in denial, refusing to believe that the plunge in his job approval numbers were due to the failure of his policies. They were convinced that it was a just a “messaging” problem that could be easily cured if Biden could start getting out of Washington, DC, to explain the many successes of his programs more in face-to-face encounters with the American people.


But when Biden did start to travel around the country more at the start of the 2022, he was surprised by the amount of criticism he received from loyal grassroots Democrats about his administration’s many failures.

“People confront him,” said a top Democratic donor who has witnessed such conversations at party fundraising events. “All he’s hearing is ‘Why can’t you get anything done?’”

The collapse of Biden’s popularity with American voters began last summer in reaction to the fiasco which resulted from his order to withdraw the remaining US troops from Afghanistan. Since that time, the fall in his popularity has continued due to a series of policy mistakes, unforced errors, and mixed messages coming out of the White House casting doubts on Biden’s ability to govern.


According to Politico’s chief White House reporter, Jonathan Lemire, “Joe Biden and his aides have grown increasingly frustrated by their inability to turn the tide against a cascade of challenges threatening to overwhelm the administration.

“Soaring global inflation. Rising fuel prices. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A Supreme Court poised to take away a constitutional right. A potentially resurgent pandemic. A Congress too deadlocked to tackle sweeping gun safety legislation even amid an onslaught of mass shootings.

“In crisis after crisis, the White House has found itself either limited or helpless in its efforts to combat the forces pummeling them.”

According to Robert Gibbs, who served as a press secretary under President Barack Obama, this is not a new phenomenon: “It’s something that has bedeviled quite a few previous presidents. Lots of things happen on your watch, but it doesn’t mean there is a magic wand to fix it. The limits of the presidency are not well grasped. The responsibility of the president is greater than the tools he has to fix.”


But the major issue driving the latest drop in Biden’s job approval ratings level to below 40% is not hard to identify. Last month, according to federal Labor Department statistics, inflation hit a 41-year high of 8.6% year over year, and prices for all kinds of consumer goods and services are currently rising at the rate of 12% annually. The average price nationwide for a gallon of gas has passed the unprecedented level of $5 at the pump and is still climbing. Consumers are also suffering from sticker shock every time they visit the supermarket to find soaring prices for all kinds of basic food and household items.

Despite rising wages, most American working- and middle-class families find themselves falling further behind economically each month, because the costs for the essentials they must buy are rising much faster than their paychecks. No wonder that the most popular measure of consumer sentiment has now fallen to the lowest levels since 1978, when chronic stagflation and a general attitude of “malaise” destroyed voter confidence in Jimmy Carter’s presidency

The numbers speak for themselves, and provide Republicans with plenty of ammunition with which to attack the policies of Biden and the Democrats as midterm election campaigns heat up across the country.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel issued a statement which highlights the indisputable facts. “Inflation is up and real wages are down. In Joe Biden’s America, everyday essentials are priced as luxury items and Americans are tired of paying the price for Biden’s failed agenda,” McDaniel said. “The families who are struggling to put food on the table, fill their cars, and find baby formula deserve answers, yet Biden doesn’t care.”

Even Jason Furman, a top economic advisor in the Obama administration, said in a CNBC interview, “Right now, we’re in a bad situation where we have a lot more price inflation than wage inflation. If you tamp down on the economy, you’re going to slow price growth and you’re going to slow wage growth. I don’t have any obvious answer for which one of those slows more than the other.”


Some economists are warning that the real-world inflation number is even worse than the government statistics indicate, because they do not fully reflect the double-digit rise in the cost of rent and other housing expenses. That includes soaring mortgage interest rates, which have put the dream of a home of their own out of the financial reach of most of today’s young American families.

Most major American companies have responded by cutting back on their profit projections for the coming year, citing rising costs and falling consumer demand. These reports have triggered a rapid decline in the major stock price indexes in recent weeks to bear market territory (20% below recent levels).

For example, the Target nationwide chain of discount department stores has had to reduce its profit estimates twice in recent months, because its shoppers have reduced their purchases. This has left the chain stuck with excess inventory, which it must now sell at reduced prices to clear its shelves for the merchandise it has already ordered for summer and fall shopping seasons.

Other nationwide retailers, including Amazon, are reporting a similar pattern. They have started to cut back on the hiring of new staff and other expansion plans, which could hasten the widely feared onset of a recession before the end of this year. The CEO of Walmart also recently said that the chain had been hiring too many new employees to replace staff out with Covid, and that the excess of workers on the payroll was large enough to depress the chain’s profits in the first quarter of this year.


Nevertheless, Biden and administration officials have continued to resist the now obvious conclusion that their $1.9 trillion Covid relief measure, modestly named the American Rescue Plan, was responsible for supercharging the initially modest Covid-initiated inflation problem. The administration and Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell initially tried to minimize the problem by insisting that the inflation was only “transitory,” despite the evidence that it was rapidly spreading far beyond energy prices and Covid-related supply chain issues to become deeply embedded in almost every segment of the American economy.

The latest Biden administration justification for its Covid relief spending bill is the claim that the inflationary pressure it created was justified by its success in boosting the speed of the recovery of the economy from artificial shock induced by the Covid lockdowns.

Defenders of the Biden administration argue that when the American Rescue Plan was being put together by the White House in early 2021, it was trying to avoid the mistake it believed was made by the Obama administration by accepting the passage of a $784 billion relief bill in response to the 2008-2009 financial crisis that was too small to provide the amount of stimulus needed to revive the economy. Democrats believe that was why the recovery during the Obama years remained so uneven and sluggish until 2016, despite the Federal Reserve’s imposition of near-zero percent interest rates.

At the time, Biden’s National Economic Council Director Brian Deese was very open about their reasons for calling for so much new spending. “The risk of doing too little outweighs the risk of doing too much,” he said. “We’re going to be unapologetic about that.”

Treasury Secretary Yellen recently made the same argument to members of Congress. “Inflation is absolutely a problem, and it’s critical to address it,” she initially conceded. “But I think at the same time, we should recognize how successful that plan was in leading to an economy where instead of having a large number of workers utterly unable to find jobs, exactly the opposite is true.”

Similarly, Gene Sperling, the senior Biden White House adviser overseeing the implementation of the 2021 stimulus package, recently wrote, “Some have a curious obsession with exaggerating impact of the Rescue Plan while ignoring the degree high inflation is global” and has driven up prices in countries which were not directly affected by the legislation. Sperling also insisted that the $1.9 trillion the bill injected into the American economy “has had very marginal impact on inflation.”


Writing in Newsweek, University of Chicago Professor Emeritus of Political Science Charles Lipson compares the struggles of the Biden administration to deal with it the harsh reality of the many self-inflicted problems it is now facing by issuing a series of excuses and explanations similar to the classic five stages of grief, beginning with denial and ending with acceptance.

Here, according to Lipson, is the typical progression of Biden administration statements which can be suitably modified to reflect the specifics of each crisis:

Stage 1. It’s not really a problem. You just think it is.

Stage 2. It’s only a problem for some people, especially rich people. It doesn’t affect ordinary folks.

Stage 3. It’s only a temporary (or transitory) problem. Although folks may be feeling some pain right now, it will go away soon, thanks to our policies.

Stage 4. The problem is lasting a little longer than expected, but none of the experts anticipated that. The president himself is working hard to fix everything.

Stage 5. It’s not our fault, and there’s nothing we can do to fix the problem. Who is to blame? (In 2021, it was Trump; in 2022, it is Putin.)

For example, when speaking to reporters over the weekend, Biden once again said Russia’s war in Ukraine was to blame for the surge in the prices of crude oil and gas at the pump. “It’s outrageous what the war in Ukraine is causing,” Biden said. “We’re trying very hard to make sure we can significantly increase the amount of barrels of oil that are being pumped out of the reserve we have.”

But notice that Biden failed to mention that the price of gas at the pump had begun to increase from the day he took office. Beginning on that day, his administration announced a series of policies, from the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline to the suspension of new leases for oil and gas exploration on federal lands, as well as regulatory changes that were designed to reduce domestic oil and natural production and discourage investment in the fossil fuel industry.


The success of those Biden policies in kneecapping the domestic fossil fuel industry is one of the main reasons why America is no longer energy independent, and cannot rapidly respond to the current worldwide shortages of crude oil and natural gas by stepping up domestic production from shale fields in the Permian Basin in Texas and the Bakken in North Dakota.

But instead of cancelling those policies and launching a Warp Speed-type crash program in an effort to restore the lost energy security of America and its European allies, the Biden administration has left its most important policies hostile to fossil fuels in place. It has offered a few temporary band-aid measures, such as drawing down a million barrels a day from the nation’s strategic petroleum reserves, but that has been ineffective at slowing the rapid pace of price increases at the pump.

Finally progressing to Stage 5 of Lipson’s narrative, Biden administration officials are now throwing up their hands and telling angry American consumers that there isn’t anything else they can do to stop gas and diesel fuel prices from rising.

The average price for a gallon of gas in America has now topped $5 for the first time ever. Last week, the national average price jumped 19 cents, and was up $1.93 from this time last year, according to the AAA Gas Price Index.


Adding to the problem is that total US fossil fuel refining capacity was reduced during the pandemic by the oil industry’s closures of some of its older and more inefficient refineries. The remaining refineries are now operating at 94% capacity, but still can’t keep up with demand.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, American oil companies have been increasing their exports of gas and diesel fuel to Europe, where they command far higher prices than here. For example, the current average price of gasoline at the pump in England is more than $10 a gallon. This has further reduced the amounts of those fuels currently in domestic storage to near record low levels.

To limit their out-of-pocket costs, many cash-strapped car-owning lower income American families are now buying fewer gallons on each visit to the gas station, but making more frequent trips to fuel up. “They want to fill up a certain amount in dollars and it just doesn’t go as far,” said Andrew Clyde, chief executive officer of Arkansas-based fuel retailer Murphy USA Inc.

They are also limiting their discretionary car trips, but most families still need to use their cars every day to go to and from work and school, and to shop for food and other essentials at the supermarket.

As demand for gasoline grows during the summer driving season, and with no immediate prospects for increasing supplies, analysts for JPMorgan Chase are predicting that prices st the pump could reach a national average of $6.20 a gallon by August.

Meanwhile, Biden administration officials continue to pretend that they don’t know that the underlying problem is their own anti-fossil fuel policies which are still in place and actively discouraging any significant increase in domestic production of crude oil and natural gas.

The dirty little secret is that despite their current public claims to the contrary, Biden administration officials are privately delighted that the price of fossil fuels has skyrocketed. They believe that high gas prices will hasten the nation’s transition from fossil fuels to green energy sources and boost the domestic market share of electric vehicles, even though all of the popular EV models are already sold out for the rest of this year, and most are far too expensive for the typical working class American family to buy.


During a White House briefing in May 2021, Biden’s Energy Secretary, Jennifer Granholm, whose net worth is estimated at $8 million, told reporters asking about soaring prices at the pump, “You know, if you drive an electric car, this would not be affecting you, clearly.”

Last November, Granholm burst into laughter on camera when a reporter, after raising the same issue, asked her to explain “the Granholm plan to increase oil production in America.”

“That is hilarious,” she said. “Would that I had the magic wand on this. As you know, of course, oil is a global market. It is controlled by a cartel. That cartel is called OPEC, and they made a decision yesterday that they were not going to increase beyond what they were already planning.” But most American car owners didn’t appreciate her humor then, and much less so now.

Since then, the Biden administration has received plenty of criticism over the scoffing remarks of its laughing energy secretary, so last week, when she was asked during an appearance on CBS News whether she could offer any “calming or reassuring words” to Americans experiencing financial hardship due to gas prices, she tried to show a little more sympathy.

“Yeah, this summer is going to be rough. I’ll just be honest with you,” she responded, and then cited a prediction by the Energy Information Administration that gas prices should start heading down by fall to $4.27 a gallon, which is almost two dollars more per gallon than $2.39, where the average gas price was when Biden took office in January 2021.

“So there will be some relief on the horizon,” Granholm added, “but during the summer driving season, it is going to be rough, no doubt about it, because we have such a demand and supply mismatch on the global market for oil” — while not even mentioning the option of making an effort to increase domestic American fossil fuel production.


This bout of inflation, which has rapidly spread from fossil fuels to food to housing, is different from most others, because it is now primarily due to chronic shortages in supplies rather higher than usual demand. Fossil fuels are in short supply everywhere. So is food. So are semiconductors, and workers, and freight capacity.

New and unexpected supply chain shortages keep appearing for a wide variety of reasons. For example, egg prices have increased by 44% since last year by an avian flu epidemic which has killed tens of millions of egg-laying chickens since the start of this year. In addition to the Russian blockade of ships in the Black Sea carrying exports of Ukrainian grown grain, farmers around the world are cutting back in the acreage they are planting due of a drastic increase in the price of fertilizer which is manufactured from natural gas, whose cost has recently quadrupled due to the worldwide fossil fuel shortage.

But the issue which makes the current problem more difficult to solve is that the standard economic formula to cure inflation calls for increasing interest rates which tends to decrease supplies by limiting investments in new production facilities. However, further reducing supplies during an era of shortages would be counterproductive because that would further the increase inflationary pressures on market prices.


Yet another troubling aspect of the current inflation problem is that there is no escape. The five categories of goods and services which account for most of the increases in consumer prices today are essential daily living expenses whose purchases cannot be deferred. They are housing, motor fuel, food, household energy, and other vehicle expenses. The other components of the consumer price index (CPI), whose prices are also rising, but at a much slower rate, include such items as airline fairs and entertainment expenses, which cost-conscious consumers can more easily do without.

With no relief in sight for Biden’s inflation problem, in addition to his many other unforced errors and self-inflicted political wounds, desperate Democrats are now talking openly about cutting their losses in the upcoming midterms election and sending Biden a clear message that they will not support him if he goes through with his public promises to run for a second term in the 2024 election.


That warning was sent loud and clear last week in a lengthy front-page story in the New York Times titled: “Should Biden Run in 2024? Democratic Whispers of ‘No’ Start to Rise.”

Based upon “interviews with nearly 50 Democratic officials, from county leaders to members of Congress, as well as with disappointed voters who backed Mr. Biden in 2020,” the story reports that “Democrats in union meetings, the back rooms of Capitol Hill and party gatherings from coast to coast are quietly worrying about Mr. Biden’s leadership, his age and his capability to take the fight to former President Donald J. Trump a second time” in 2024. It also said that Democrat party leaders are “alarmed about Republicans’ rising strength and extraordinarily pessimistic about an immediate path forward.”

These same leaders, according to the Times story, are “struggling to explain away a series of calamities for the party that all seem beyond Mr. Biden’s control: inflation rates unseen in four decades, surging gas prices, a lingering pandemic, a spate of mass shootings, a Supreme Court poised to end the federal right to an abortion, and key congressional Democrats’ refusal to muscle through the president’s Build Back Better agenda or an expansion of voting rights.”


The story also mentions the “deep concern” among Democrats about Biden’s political viability if he seeks to start a second term at the age of 82: “They have watched as a commander in chief who built a reputation for gaffes has repeatedly rattled global diplomacy with unexpected remarks that were later walked back by his White House staff.”

Another problem for Democrats who want to dump Biden from the party ticket in 2024 is choosing his replacement. Most of the Democrats interviewed by the Times did not expect the party to accept Vice President Kamala Harris as its 2024 standard bearer, and anticipate a wide open fight for the nomination, led by those who lost to Biden in the 2020 primary, including Senators Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker, as well as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke.


Other Democrats told the Times that they are not satisfied with any of those choices. They are hoping for the emergence of a new candidate whose appeal to independents and moderate Republicans would be strong enough to overcome current voter dissatisfaction with their party and give Democrats a better chance to retain the White House in 2024.

The pessimism among many Democrats about Biden, Harris, and the current field of potential replacement presidential candidates was vividly expressed by the comments of former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, who sought the Democrat presidential nomination in 2004. He has long called upon the party to develop new leadership, and told a reporter for the Times, in apparent despair, that “the generation [of party leaders] after me is just a complete trash heap.”

Dean said that Biden and the other older Democrat leaders in Washington today “have spent far too much time articulating goals that they have not reached,” and should be replaced by a younger generation of party leaders, still in their 30s and 40s, with a more practical and achievable political agenda. “We need to have specific examples of how we’re dealing with things; it can’t just be pie-in-the-sky and kumbaya,” he declared.



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