Is time the Democrats’ friend or enemy?

Voters are increasingly pessimistic, and messaging differently only goes so far

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., holds a sign about  high inflation after the Republican Senate luncheon in the Russell Senate Office Building on Tuesday. Joining him, clockwise from left, were Sen. Roy Blunt, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sens. John Thune, Rick Scott and Joni Ernst. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., holds a sign about high inflation after the Republican Senate luncheon in the Russell Senate Office Building on Tuesday. Joining him, clockwise from left, were Sen. Roy Blunt, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sens. John Thune, Rick Scott and Joni Ernst. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 16, 2022 at 6:00am

Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson said, “A week is a long time in politics.” He wasn’t wrong, even more so in today’s age of social media and instant news 24/7. A lot can happen between now and November.

And that is exactly what Democrats are counting on to deliver them from the political abyss potentially facing them this fall. Time.

Time for inflation and gas prices to head south. Time for the GDP and consumer confidence to head north. Time for the coronavirus to fade into history along with Afghanistan. Time for more jobs and less crime. And, of course, time for "Build Back Better."  

But time isn’t a reliable constant. As Einstein put it, “Time is relative; its only worth depends on what we do as it is passing.” Yes, a lot can change in the next nine months, but at this point, given President Joe Biden’s poll numbers and the Democratic Congress in chaos, will it matter? It didn’t for George H.W. Bush in 1992.

Democratic strategist James Carville famously said of the ’92 election, “It’s the economy, stupid.” He was right, and the Clinton campaign won the election by blaming Bush for the recession of the early '90s that brought a stagnant economy and high unemployment with it. 

Actually, the recession had ended the year before, at the end of March 1991. In fact, in the three quarters leading up to the ’92 election, GDP growth was 4 percent or higher. But the reality was that voters weren’t feeling the recovery, whatever the GDP numbers said. 

As an election dynamic, GDP matters to voters, but the price of gas or food matters more. While the Bush political environment isn’t a perfect analogy for Biden’s sinking fortunes, one thing remains the same. No matter how many times Biden or his defenders take credit for what they claim is an economic comeback of historic proportions, voters today aren’t “feeling” this recovery either. 

It’s a little like priming an old well pump. It takes some time and effort before the water starts to run, delivering proof that the well is working. That’s where Democrats find themselves today, and their solution to get themselves out of a big hole is to declare victory and hope the electorate buys it. 

What complicates the situation for Biden is that voters are now judging the president and his party’s policies through a lens clouded by questionable competence and credibility. People aren’t buying what he’s selling, in part, because he has left a trail of untrue or, at best, misleading claims of progress over the past year.

He tells the country that the economy is roaring back, eclipsing the rest of the world; but inflation has hit a 40-year high, de facto levying a $276-a-month inflation “tax” on American households, according to Moody Analytics. His decision to roll back U.S. energy production, starting with his halting of construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, has seen gas prices at least $1 a gallon higher than just a year ago. And on Tuesday, the Producer Price Index came in at 9.7 percent, much higher than expected.

Despite Biden’s declarations of progress on the economic front, the loss of real wages and income, exploding inflation and the failure to regain the final 3 million lost jobs as a result of the pandemic are taking a political toll on Biden and congressional Democrats. 

A Gallup survey recently found that Americans are very pessimistic when it comes to the economy, with only 29 percent saying the economy is improving, while 67 percent said it was getting worse.  

It’s clear this election is going to turn on two key factors that are problematic for Democrats. Jobs/income (wages) and the cost of living (inflation). And if one of these isn’t working, then the economy isn’t working for most Americans.

Biden’s credibility and competence took another hit when he all but declared “mission accomplished” by saying in July the country had “gained the upper hand against” COVID-19, leading people to believe the days of masks and lockdowns were nearly over.

When the variants hit, Biden took his own hit in the polls as people realized this president wasn’t prepared for the challenges posed by the new waves of the pandemic and didn’t understand what he was dealing with. It was a problem of his own making.

The pandemic may ease by the election, but voters will be slow to listen to claims of “defeating the virus.” Biden may finally put the fire out in the next few months, but the house may be left in ashes.

Then there was Afghanistan. Ironically, a majority of people probably supported Biden’s desire to get out of the country’s longest war. But he promised not to leave any Americans behind and that our exit would not be another Saigon. 

None of that came true. Instead, 13 American servicemen and servicewomen died. When we needed planes for evacuation, he closed Bagram Airfield and left hundreds of millions of dollars in military equipment behind.

In short, the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a disaster and significantly undermined Biden’s credibility with the electorate.

This was followed by the supply chain crisis that the administration now claims credit for “fixing.” But shoppers who can’t find cat food or milk today are only reminded of the days when they couldn’t find cleaning supplies or masks and sanitizers.

Meanwhile, Biden brags on the partisan passage of the American Rescue Plan. Joe Biden, if nothing else, is a creature of Congress who measures success by legislation passed, not by policy outcomes. Legislation is important, but only if people feel its impact, if it changes their lives for the better. Biden is losing the argument.

As the White House and Democratic congressional leaders spout a steady stream of happy talk, they are fighting an uphill battle against their own credibility and competence and a ticking clock. 

“It’s a long way to November,” they tell us, ignoring the fact that voter sentiment rarely turns on a dime, whatever the political environment or economic number. Changing voters’ minds is usually a process driven by credible evidence of progress on issues that matter to them, not an overnight conversion based on messaging.

In other words, time isn’t on their side.