When the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced on February 3 that the economy, beating market expectations, had created some 517,000 jobs the previous month, the White House hastily scheduled presidential remarks. Speaking to the press in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Joe Biden took credit for the news. He ran through a list of positive statistics: 12 million new jobs since he became president; the lowest unemployment rate in 54 years; 3 percent GDP growth in the fourth quarter of last year; a revived manufacturing sector; and a slowing rate of inflation. “Put simply,” he said, “I would argue that the Biden economic plan is working.”

When Biden finished reading his prepared statement, a reporter struck a discordant note by asking the president whether he took any blame for inflation. Biden was offended. “Am I taking blame for inflation?” he asked, repeating the question as if it was something a crazy person would say. Then he denied responsibility. Inflation wasn’t his fault, he explained, “because it was already there when I got here, man.” When he was inaugurated, Biden went on, the U.S. economy was essentially a hellscape: “We weren’t manufacturing a damn thing here.” Now all is well. “That’s why I don’t” assume culpability, Biden said, before turning to leave for an event in Pennsylvania.

The exchange, though brief, was nonetheless revealing. As he prepares to launch his reelection campaign, the 80-year-old Biden must convince the public that economic and social conditions have improved during his tenure—that, thanks to him, America has recovered from the supposed long dark night of the soul that it endured under his predecessor. Not only is Biden’s narrative of recovery misleading—inflation showed up not before, but months after, he moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—it is also unconvincing. Public-opinion data reveal a stunning divergence between the heroic and aggrandizing self-portrayal of Biden and his administration and the pessimistic and negative attitudes of the electorate. Biden can argue that his plan is working until his face turns blue. Right now, the American people disagree, and they don’t like him much, either.

The worst inflation in four decades has fostered a level of popular discontent not seen for a generation. Though the rate of inflation may be falling, price increases continue to outpace wages, resulting in a decline in living standards that is about to enter its third year. The headlines may advertise national growth and employment, but individual voters are struggling and dissatisfied. Sixty-four percent of Americans in the January 29 NBC News poll said that their family income can’t keep up with the cost of living. In the Pew Research Center poll released on January 31, 78 percent of American adults said that economic conditions are poor. Three-quarters of Americans told Pew that they are “very concerned” about the price of food and consumer goods. Forty percent said they expect the economy to grow worse over the coming year.

Since 1986, pollsters for the Washington Post and ABC News have asked respondents whether their livelihoods have improved since the most recent president’s inauguration. According to the February 5 Post/ABC News poll, 41 percent of Americans say they are worse off than they were when Biden took office. That is the highest level ever. In a CBS News/YouGov poll also released on February 5, 61 percent of Americans rated the economy “bad,” and 62 percent expected the economy next year to be in either a recession or a slowdown.

Such feelings are widespread and durable. In eight of the nine NBC News surveys conducted since October 2021, more than 70 percent of the public has said the country is on the wrong track, making for the longest streak of national unhappiness in over 30 years. According to CBS News/YouGov, 68 percent of Americans say things are going badly.

Economic insecurity is the primary cause of Biden’s middling to poor job-approval ratings. At the time of writing, Biden is at 43 percent approval in the FiveThirtyEight polling average. His ratings on the economy and inflation are much worse. The January NBC News poll gave him a 36 percent approval rating on the economy. The February Post/ABC News poll had him at 37 percent on the economy. The CBS News/YouGov poll from the same month had his economic approval at 38 percent. CBS and YouGov asked respondents separately whether they approved of Biden’s handling of inflation. Thirty-four percent said yes.

War weariness may be eroding Biden’s numbers as well. The polling contains danger signs for those Americans, like me, who support continued military and financial assistance to Ukraine in its defense against Russia’s invasion. Biden’s marks on foreign policy are not much better than his economic scores. Forty-one percent approved of his foreign policy in the NBC News poll. Thirty-eight percent approved of his handling of Ukraine in the Post/ABC News poll. His rating on Ukraine in the CBS News/YouGov poll was a bit higher, at 46 percent, but it still did not command majority support. When asked whether America should provide more aid to Ukraine, adults in the NBC News poll agreed, 49 percent to 47 percent. That slim two-point margin is troubling for Ukraine, and for the world.

It is hard to separate the worries of Americans over the domestic and international scene from their assessments of Biden’s personal capacities and attributes. While 45 percent of Americans told NBC News that Biden is easygoing and likable, and 42 percent said that he is knowledgeable and experienced, they did not have many more compliments to offer. Just 34 percent rated Biden honest and trustworthy, 31 percent said he’s competent and effective, 28 percent said he is mentally and physically fit for office, and 23 percent said he has united the country. In an AP/NORC Center for Public Affairs poll released on February 6, 23 percent of Americans said that they have “a great deal” of confidence in Biden’s management skills, 21 percent said that they are confident in his leadership ability during a crisis, and a pathetic 13 percent said that they are confident he will achieve his goals.

Most Democrats do not want Biden to run for a second term. Fifty-eight percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents told Post/ABC News pollsters that they would rather have another nominee in 2024. The figure hasn’t budged in months. Sixteen percent of Democrats said they were enthusiastic about another four years of Biden. In the AP/NORC poll, 37 percent of Democrats wanted Biden to run again. The percentage was 52 percent last November. “Follow-up interviews with poll respondents,” wrote correspondents Josh Boak and Hannah Fingerhut, “suggest that many believe the 80-year-old’s age is a liability, with people focused on his coughing, his gait, his gaffes, and the possibility that the world’s most stressful job would be better suited for someone younger.”

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

The ingenuous and ham-handed way that Biden has dealt with the classified materials from throughout his career that in recent months have been recovered from his onetime office and from his home displays those traits that most Americans find objectionable about him. Entranced by macroeconomic figures and by legislative accomplishments whose benefits are amorphous and dispersed, Biden, his team, and his allies in the political class are blind to the incongruity between their official statements and everyday experience. That is not a good situation for an incumbent president. For Biden, success in 2024 won’t depend on his own strength. It will depend on his opponent’s weakness.

Photo: Gage Skidmore

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