Joe Biden’s reelection campaign cannot, as the Bertolt Brecht poem says, “dissolve the people and elect another.” So he has a problem.
There are two issues on which voters remain consistent: crime and inflation. Voters cannot generally be talked out of feeling unsafe, and they cannot be talked into pocketbook optimism. That does not mean Biden is doomed, but it does mean his “morning in America” shtick is a poor reading of the room.
“Inflation has come down while the unemployment rate has been below 4% for 21 months in a row—the longest stretch in more than 50 years—while wages, wealth, and the share of working-age Americans with jobs are all higher now than before the pandemic. I’m working to get results for the American people and it’s happening,” the president said in a statement Tuesday.
No one can begrudge a candidate’s reelection spin here and there, but Biden might make his problems worse with this one. The state of the economy is not a multiple-choice question for most people, nor is it an academic one. They know when the cost of everyday staples is putting their checkbook in a precarious balance. “The people are wrong” isn’t going to cut it.
For example, last month Bloomberg released an economic survey that found that “when it came to handling the cost of everyday goods and services, voters trusted Republican frontrunner Donald Trump over Biden by a margin of 12 percentage points. The gap was even wider for independents, whose votes are crucial to clinching an election.” Trump was also trusted over Biden on the general economy as well as specific aspects of the issue, such as taxes and investment.
The results were brutal for Biden despite the fact that “recent economic data shows strength, with a solid labor market and resilient consumers fueling factories and company spending.”
Put simply, voters are looking at prices and they don’t like what they see. One reason for that is the class divide on prices. Polls consistently show an unsurprising trend: the lower the annual income, the more likely voters tend to be to say they are burdened by everyday costs. As William Galston has noted, education levels are a reliable proxy for those cost concerns, and “people who feel the impact of inflation most are also those who cast critical swing votes in the last two presidential elections, where a wide education gap has opened up between the two parties.” Because of the Electoral College, losing those swing state voters cannot be offset by running up the score in California or New York.
Crime is a similar story. Heading into the midterms, perceptions of crime were seen as a key issue for voters. That bothered the president’s defenders in the press, a good example of which was this post-midterms ABC News report complaining that voters had been scared into caring about crime “despite reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that show no significant increase in the U.S. violent crime rate.” ABC’s frustration was palpable, insisting that “Americans’ poor perception of crime has been seen in many elections before it.”
Or it could be that ignoring specific crime spikes because other types of crime remain steady isn’t how most people view threats to their safety. Carjacking has become such a problem in Washington DC that police have offered tips on how to avoid becoming a victim of auto theft. My favorite: “Drive in the center lane to make it harder for potential carjackers to approach the car.” Sure, all those three-lane residential streets in DC.
Earlier this week carjackers attempted to break into a Secret Service car while the agents were nearby protecting Joe Biden’s granddaughter. One agent even fired his gun at the would-be thieves. Last month, Rep. Henry Cuellar was carjacked outside a residential building that is home, reportedly, to dozens of members of Congress.
Nor is it only car theft. Today, a man was sentenced for assaulting Rep. Angie Craig in the elevator of her building earlier this year. Prosecutors cited the man’s dozen previous convictions in pushing for prison time.
It should be easy, then, to understand why telling voters not to believe their lying eyes is a poor electoral strategy. Biden has the misfortune of facing two issues on which voters tend to be unforgiving. If he’s not careful, it’ll be a perfect storm—no matter how often he and his allies tell people they don’t need that umbrella.