President Biden ought to be cruising to an easy re-election. But recent polls, especially NBC News’ this week, show him slipping further behind near-certain GOP nominee Donald Trump.
What explains this?
Biden should benefit from what’s usually the single most important factor in determining whether an incumbent president is re-elected: a robust economy.
Numerous political-science predictive models going back decades conclude that falling unemployment, rising wages and a growing gross domestic product in the first half of the election year virtually ensure a second term.
The latest economic reports should be boosting Biden’s political standing.
The jobs report blew past expectations, with unemployment near a 50-year low of 3.7%.
Inflation has fallen by half from its peak a year ago, wage growth is finally exceeding inflation, and interest rates have stopped rising.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta is forecasting a peppy 5% growth rate for 2024’s first quarter.
The University of Michigan’s consumer-sentiment survey has shown a rise in consumer confidence over the past several months — jumping 13% in the last month alone.
These headline numbers ought to guarantee a landslide re-election.
In November 1984, unemployment was 7.2% and inflation still above 4%, yet Ronald Reagan won a 49-state landslide with 60% of the popular vote.
Yet Biden continues to slip, even against an opponent with historically high negative ratings.
Three things may explain why Biden is struggling when he should be thriving.
First, below the headline economic numbers are indicators the overall economy may not be strong or benefiting most Americans.
Household debt is rising sharply, as are credit-card delinquencies, indicating that many middle-class consumers are spending beyond their means to keep up with higher prices.
Millennials in particular — people between the ages of 30 and 39 — are falling behind in debt payments at a much higher rate than other groups.
Many leading high-tech companies such as Meta (Facebook’s parent) are reaching record-high stock prices, but they’re built partly upon massive layoffs in the sector.
A lot of the headline prosperity of the moment is the result of old-fashioned Keynesian-style government outlays, and we should not be surprised Biden’s blowout multitrillion-dollar spending spree is juicing the economy.
A disproportionate amount of job growth last year came from government employment.
Sustainable economic expansion depends ultimately on private-sector economic activity, not government stimulus.
This is the economic equivalent of a sugar high, after which a crash usually comes.
And much of Biden’s spending is skewed toward the rich, in the form of lavish subsidies for politically connected green energy and tax credits for electric cars that go overwhelmingly to upper-income Americans.
(Yet Ford Motor still lost $4.7 billion from its electric-car division last year and predicts the division will lose more than $5 billion this year.)
In other words, the top-line prosperity of the economy is not being widely distributed, which is Democratic Party dogma.
It’s one reason recent polls show Trump leading Biden by 25 points on which candidate is thought to be a better steward of the economy.
Second, even though consumer sentiment is trending positive, the number of Americans who tell pollsters the country is on the “wrong track” continues to clock in at more than 70%.
This is likely because of social issues, especially crime and out-of-control immigration.
These issues merged with the recent assault on New York City police officers by “migrants” who were released without bail.
Future historians will probably point to an epicycle that began four years ago with the Minneapolis policeman who carelessly knelt on a criminal suspect’s neck resulting in the suspect’s death and ending with the assault on NYPD officers, whose assailants went unpunished because of the careless liberal overreaction to the first incident.
Biden and Democrats are on the hook for this catastrophic mistake.
But third, there is the obvious elephant in the room.
While elephants never forget, Biden can’t remember much of anything.
His mental and physical decline from a year or two ago is plain to everyone with eyes to see.
This week he talked of speaking with “Mitterrand from Germany,” when Mitterrand was the French president in the 1980s and died in 1996.
Democrats are actively whispering about this problem among themselves but with few exceptions are unwilling to speak openly about it or do anything about it.
The polls show a majority of voters don’t think Biden can complete a second term.
So why give him one?
Steven F. Hayward is the Gaylord visiting professor at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy.