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Biden’s ‘historic’ results aren’t what he thinks

Americans know their paychecks simply don’t buy what they used to

Meat products are pictured at a grocery store in Washington D.C., on Feb. 14. Nothing typifies voter frustration with President Joe Biden’s economic policies more than the rise in the cost of food, Winston writes.
Meat products are pictured at a grocery store in Washington D.C., on Feb. 14. Nothing typifies voter frustration with President Joe Biden’s economic policies more than the rise in the cost of food, Winston writes. (Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu via Getty Images)

As President Joe Biden heads west this week, with stops in battleground states Arizona and Nevada, it appears that he will once again be singing from a repertoire that the majority of voters don’t believe and don’t want to hear. In fact, they’ve already changed the channel.

In this space last week, we tackled the credibility of Biden’s reelection messaging with voters. It wasn’t pretty. But the Biden team seems to be sticking to the idea that the key to winning the economic narrative is just a matter of getting the electorate to understand how well the economy is actually doing. The president and Democrats have used a variety of economic messages that survey data shows are simply not believable to a growing share of an increasingly impatient electorate.

Central to the White House’s problem in the polls is the fact that the Biden team and its supporters on Capitol Hill don’t look at the economy the way most ordinary Americans do, particularly middle-class and low-income voters. Biden has been focused on unemployment numbers, GDP, inflation coming down from its 9 percent high and gas prices, as well as contrasts to other economies around the world.

What Team Biden doesn’t seem to get is that people are judging Biden’s economic policies not by government statistics but on cost-of-living prices: for food, energy, gas and housing. Voters see inflation as the fundamental economic problem facing them and their families, and 82 percent say they determine how inflation is doing by the price of the goods people regularly buy.

Despite all the White House economic messaging, State of the Union claims and campaign spin, virtually all major surveys show a majority of voters disapprove of Biden’s overall and economic job performance.

The explanation for Biden’s dilemma isn’t complicated. Voters understand when and why the inflation crisis happened. On March 12, 2021, with all the fanfare of a royal progress, Biden and Hill Democrats rushed to the Rose Garden to celebrate the passage of their American Rescue Plan. The president told the crowd, “In the coming weeks … we’re going to be traveling the country to speak directly to the American people about how this law is going to make a real difference in their lives and how help is here for them.”

Biden was half right. In an ironic twist, the American Rescue Plan did make a real difference in the lives of all Americans. It kicked off what has been more than three years of historic and destructive inflation. Passage of this plan, with no Republican votes, was a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences in action.

Some context is needed here. Prior to the passage of the American Rescue Plan (including the month it was signed into law), inflation had been under 3 percent for 111 straight months. In the 35 months since the signing of that bill on March 11, 2021, inflation has never been under 3 percent.

Many economists like to argue that the key number we should consider in assessing the economy is core inflation, a number that excludes food and energy, the two items that all Americans purchase virtually on a daily basis. Using core inflation, for the 302 months prior to the American Rescue Plan, including the month it was signed into law, core inflation had been under 3 percent. In the 35 months following the signing of that bill, it has never dipped below 3 percent.

The challenge for most Americans has been how to cope with the consequences of Biden’s economic policies: significantly higher prices overall that have gone up cumulatively by 18.6 percent since his inauguration, while weekly wages increased only 13.5 percent, leaving a 5.1 percent shortfall. This shortfall was even greater among major budget items for American families.

When it comes to the impact of energy costs on the family budget, despite the decrease in gas prices from a high of $5.11 per gallon in June 2022, overall gasoline prices have increased 38.8 percent since January 2021. This has outpaced the increase in weekly wages by 25.3 percent. Additionally, the cost of electricity has gone up 28.4 percent, meaning it surpassed weekly wages by 14.9 percent.

But nothing typifies voter frustration with Biden’s economic policies more than the rise in the cost of food, one of the most critical family budget items. Consumers have seen cumulative prices for food go up 21 percent, outpacing the increase in weekly wages by 7.5 percent.

In some subcategories of food, the increases have been even larger. Poultry is a good example: up 22.6 percent, outdoing weekly wages by 9.1 percent.

Bloomberg aptly called the phenomenon “supermarket sticker shock” in a piece this week, writing that “measured by unit, grocery purchases over the past 12 months were down 2% from the prior year, though spending is up because of higher prices, according to NIQ,” a consumer research firm.

While inflation has come down from a peak of 9.1 percent in June 2022, prices continue to rise, just at a slower rate. People have seen a marginal improvement in weekly wages, which have slightly outpaced inflation over the past nine months, but wage increases are nowhere near what is needed to get Americans back to where they were economically prior to this administration.

When ordinary Americans go for groceries or gas, they know their paychecks simply don’t buy what they used to. For many in the middle class, this has become not only a significant challenge but an unwelcome change in their lives.

Biden and his party have failed to effectively address the significant damage that was done to family budgets from October 2021 through February 2023, when inflation was at 6 percent or higher for 17 consecutive months thanks to their ill-advised economic policies.

Instead, even last Friday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was still blaming the pandemic, Vladimir Putin, the war in Ukraine and supply chain breakdowns for record inflation — not Biden’s economic policies, which she proclaimed had delivered an “unprecedented economic recovery.” It’s a White House narrative that voters are rejecting.

As Biden’s campaign manager wrote in a strategy memo this week, “President Joe Biden has shown he can deliver historic results for the American people.”

Well, they have been historic all right.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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