Joe Biden is no Bill Clinton. The former President was a masterful retail politician, able to connect with voters personally, and empathize directly with their needs. From gas prices to the overall economy, the current President prefers to deny the reality happening before our very eyes.
President Bill Clinton was famous for his ability to emphasize with voters. Many believe he won the second Presidential Debate in 1992 and ultimately the Presidency because of his response to a question on the national debt and the economy. It was a town hall style debate, where the candidates were questioned by members of the audience. A woman asked both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush the same question, “How has the national debt affected each of your lives, and if it hasn’t, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?” President Bush’s response typified his technical expertise and notorious lack of a personal touch. He began with something of a non-sequitur, “I think the national debt affects everybody. Obviously, it has a lot to do with interest rates,” prompting the questioner to interrupt him. She asked, “You, on a personal basis?” The moderator, Carole Simpson, also interjected, asking the same thing, “You, personally?” President Bush continued to struggle with his answer, saying, “Well, I love my grandchildren…” The woman asked him, “How?” “Well, I love my grandchildren and I wanted to think that they’re going to be able to afford an education. I think that…” The President had no idea where to go from there, actually asking the woman whether she was suggesting rich people aren’t affected by the national debt, pleading with her, “Help me with the question and I’ll try to answer.” The woman explained that some of her friends were struggling to pay their bills, feeling the bite of the short recession. “I know people who cannot afford to pay the mortgage on their homes, their car payment. I have personal problems with the national debt. But how has it affected you and if you have no experience in it, how can you help us if you don’t know what we’re feeling?” The moderator tried to help as well, adding “I think she means more the recession.”
Still, President Bush struggled throughout a meandering and overly long answer, including this oddly obtuse phrasing, “I don’t think it’s fair to say, you haven’t had cancer. Therefore, you don’t know what’s it like. I don’t think it’s fair to say, you know, whatever it is, that if you haven’t been hit by it personally.” He ended by finally thanking the woman “for clarifying for me.” Future President Bill Clinton was a different kind of politician, however. He got up from his stool and approached the woman directly, asking her, “How has it affected you again? You know people who lost their homes?” Then, he launched into an answer that encapsulated his “I feel your pain” persona. “I’ve been governor of a small state for 12 years. I’ll tell you how it’s affected me. Every year, Congress and the President sign laws that make us do more things and give us less money to do it. I see middle-class people whose services have gone down while the wealthy has gotten tax cuts. When people lose their jobs, there is a good chance I know them by their name. If the factory closes, I know the people who ran it.” He continued, “And I’ve been out here for 13 months meeting in meetings just like this ever since October, with people like you all over America, people that have lost their jobs, lost their livelihood, lost their health insurance,” concluding that the reason why is “because we are in the grip of a failed economic theory. And this decision you’re about to make better be about what kind of economic theory you want, not just people saying I’m going to go fix it but what are we going to do? I think we have to do is invest in American jobs, American education, control American health care costs and bring the American people together again.”
It was a textbook example of how to deal with the public, what is generally known as retail politics, and President Clinton was clearly a master. Thirty years later, President Biden was said to be known for his ability to empathize with the average voter as well. Perhaps not on the level of Bill Clinton, but still his working class upbringing and Pennsylvania roots were supposed to supplement his homespun persona, enabling him to connect with people and their day to day struggles. Alas, the truth has been quite different than advertised, at least if his recent messaging strategy has been any indication. Gas prices are a perfect example: Everyone knows they have shot up substantially on his watch, increasing over 50% over the past 18 months. This is headline news on a practically daily basis, a pain most people feel at the pump at least once a week. It is also true that prices have begun to drop over the past 30 days or so, suggesting that they have peaked and perhaps some relief is on the way. The adroit politician would highlight the drop, claim it is evidence that their policies are moving things in the right direction, but then stress that there is more work to be done and it will take some time for them to fall further. Essentially they might say, I know you’re hurting, but under my leadership we’ve seen some limited relief in recent weeks and we’re working hard to ensure it continues. The goal would be to acknowledge things are not well while offering hope they are moving in the right direction. Hang in there in the meantime, I’m on your side and doing everything possible on your behalf.
President Biden, however, took a different approach. Earlier this week, he tweeted a graphic acknowledging absolutely none of the pain. Instead, he told everyone prices have dropped and took a victory lap for the “savings” he provided the average person. “At current prices the average driver will spend $35 less per month for one person or $75 less per month for a family with two cars than they would if gas prices stayed at their peak.” (Technically the graphic had a typo in it, “peson” instead of “person,” but given the volume of similar mistakes on this blog, I shouldn’t be the one throwing petty stones.) He captioned the graphic by noting that, “For American families looking for a little more breathing room, these savings matter.” He, of course, failed to mention that these savings aren’t really savings at all if you consider the entire time he’s been in office, rather than picking an arbitrary and potentially seasonal peak as gas prices normally decline after Memorial Day. The average consumer is still paying hundreds of dollars more in gas on his watch, and surely knows this. Republican Representative August Pfluger estimates a one-car family is putting $109.30 more into their tank per month, and a two car family a whopping $218.60, what used to be the cost to lease an inexpensive car itself. It’s like paying back a quarter of a loan and claiming you gave the person the money outright. One might be tempted to turn President Biden’s own phrase on its head: These costs matter, big time.
Nor is this the first time the President has attempted to claim victory on gas prices, pretending American memories are so short that we won’t realize we’re still paying much more than before he was in office. On July 18, he tweeted something similar, “Gas prices have been dropping for 34 days straight, about 50 cents a gallon. That saves the average driver about $25 a month. I know those extra dollars and cents mean something. It’s breathing room. And we’re not done working to get prices even lower.” It was another attempt to take credit for a slight drop while completely failing to acknowledge the reality of the months that preceded it. He even tried the same thing when the latest inflation numbers showed that we continue to move in the wrong direction on prices, claiming they didn’t capture the full picture because gas prices have come down recently. He might as well have added, pay have no attention to the massive increase that has occurred since I’ve been in office. Just ride the drop! If these tweets are any indication, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the President believes the average voter is too stupid to read in the first place. Why else would he attempt to claim victory on a topic where people are still experiencing the pain on a daily basis, denying what they have experienced over the past year with their own eyes? Fans of George Orwell, will no doubt be reminded of the infamous chocolate rations scene in 1984. “It appeared that there had even been demonstrations to thank Big Brother for raising the chocolate ration to twenty grammes a week. And only yesterday, he reflected, it had been announced that the ration was to be REDUCED to twenty grammes a week. Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours? Yes, they swallowed it.” This, apparently, is what the President and his entire administration thinks of you.
The reality of the economy is also another area where President Biden is bizarrely trying to deny what the average American is feeling and experiencing with their own eyes. Over the past week, key members of the administration and the President himself have embarked on a concerted effort to redefine a recession, claiming the usual definition of two quarters of contracting GDP, the same definition used to classify the 10 of the last 10 recessions, no longer applies. The Director of the National Economic Council, Brian Deese, claimed earlier this week that “two negative quarters of GDP growth is not the technical definition of recession. It’s not the definition that economists have traditionally relied on.” He continued, “There is an organization called the National Bureau of Economic Research, and what they do is they look at a broad range of data and deciding whether or not a recession has occurred. That is the process that economists and administrations have used for years and decades to identify when a recession has occurred.” He failed to mention that this National Bureau weighs in after the fact, sometimes months later, but in the meantime no one has ever had a problem using the two contracting quarters rule until now. Instead, he seemed to suggest that Americans should be thankful we’re not facing a famine, happy we aren’t literally starving. “I think that our economy is more resilient to the types of challenges that we face,” Mr. Deese said. “For example, with respect to food, we’re a net exporter of agricultural commodities. And obviously, the high prices are hitting Americans very hard, but in a way that is different from some places that are facing famine, for example.” Perhaps the President should consider, “The economy sucks, but at least you’re not starving,” as his new campaign slogan.
Mr. Deese was not alone. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen made a similar argument, claiming that the “common definition” of a recession is incorrect. Insisting, “We’ve got a very strong labor market. This is not an economy that’s in recession.” It’s an economy that’s “in a period of transition in which growth is slowing,” and this slowdown is “necessary and appropriate,” because “we need to be growing at a steady and sustainable pace.” In other words, this recession is good for you, the same as when they told you that inflation was a good thing as well. The White House website is also broadcasting these same “you don’t know what a recession is” talking points. It now features a page reading, “What is a recession? While some maintain that two consecutive quarters of falling real GDP constitute a recession, that is neither the official definition nor the way economists evaluate the state of the business cycle. Instead, both official determinations of recessions and economists’ assessment of economic activity are based on a holistic look at the data – including the labor market, consumer and business spending, industrial production, and incomes. Based on these data, it is unlikely that the decline in GDP in the first quarter of this year – even if followed by another GDP decline in the second quarter – indicates a recession.” President Biden himself was more blunt, “We’re not going to be in a recession,” he told reporters on Monday. “My hope is we go from this rapid growth to a steady growth.” Perhaps needless to say, the mainstream media has been happy to play along to an extent, carefully noting that the Biden Administration is technically correct. For example, Reuters claimed “this may be the rare moment when that is not enough for economists to declare the world’s largest economy in recession” and the Associated Press was sure to mention that slowing growth might be good for inflation.
This all out push to redefine recession is occurring in advance of the release of new economic numbers that are expected to show two quarters of negative economic growth, but it is not likely to make much difference when voters are already sour on the economy and not likely to entertain semantic debates over technical definitions. Gallup puts the Economic Confidence Index at -58, the second lowest level ever recorded outside the Great Recession of 2009. The index is significantly lower, -32 compared to -58, than it was during the economic shutdowns at the start of the pandemic, and the metric itself continues to decline. Not surprisingly, 40% of Americans mention the economy as the nation’s most important problem, the highest level since 2016. Before the pandemic, that figure was as low as 9%. No one rates economic conditions excellent, as in zero respondents fully endorse the state of the American economy. A mere 11% call them good. 34% say fair, and a whopping 54% poor. This was as of June, when a full 8% more people responded poor than in May, suggesting that Americans are increasingly dour about their economic prospects. It is political malpractice to deny these trends and play word games over the precise definition of a commonly used term, especially when President Biden himself has never shown any concern about using the R-word before. We might refer to it as far more Marie Antoinette “let them eat cake” than Bill Clinton “I feel your pain” when you suddenly need a degree in economics to determine what everyone with half a brain can see with their own eyes. What next, you’ll need a degree in biology to define what a woman is? Oh, wait…