Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 1 October 2023


Biden’s Trend Line Points Downward

Voters don’t miss Trump, but they miss 2019, and they worry about crime, immigration and inflation.

Peggy Noonan

Sept. 28, 2023 6:52 pm ET

An anti-migrant protest led by Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa at Floyd Bennett Field in New York, Aug. 22. PHOTO: MICHAEL M. SANTIAGO/GETTY IMAGES

I meant to write on the debate this week but found the event unsatisfying in a way I couldn’t characterize. Twenty minutes in I wrote my first note: “Is there such a thing as boring bedlam?” All the candidates seemed to be doing their best in predictable ways, but nothing came together. I thought Nikki Haley strong, as usual now, and Ron DeSantis impressively and almost poignantly dogged. Mike Pence has a sad, kind face, and there’s something reassuring and poignant about him, too. Vivek Ramaswamy’s self-confidence is grating. He rudely interrupts. He’s grown his hair so high that at one point I half-glanced his way and thought it was Lincoln in his stovepipe hat. Is that a branding experiment?

On the president’s polling problems, in which major national polls found that he was running even with or losing in a landslide to Donald Trump and that everyone is concerned about his cognitive decline, I think we have the emphasis wrong as we consider the reasons.


Joe Biden is old, but policy is his problem. I believe the majority of Americans don’t like current Democratic policies on major issues. They don’t like the party’s position on crime, which comes down to the idea that crime is bad but we can’t just arrest people and throw them in prison if they’re convicted, it’s more societally nuanced than that. Or its position on illegal immigration, which is that the number and boldness of the past few years’ surge is unfortunate, but we’re not sure it’s happening at really high levels, or why, and the latter question demands more study.

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They don’t like Democratic stands on gender issues—boys on the girls’ team, men in the women’s locker room, and all of this enforced in the schools by some Right Think Mechanism whose source can never be traced back. They don’t like the party’s preoccupation with climate concerns to the point that all economic decisions must revolve solely around that issue.

The polls are bearing this out. This week’s Morning Consult poll found that by a 9-point margin voters see the Democratic Party as more “ideologically extreme” than the GOP.

The opposing argument: Heck no, the voters elected a Democrat as president only three years ago, with a popular margin of seven million. So they must kind of like Democratic policies! And they elected Barack Obama twice!

They do like some Democratic policies. But Mr. Biden’s election was about one big thing, the urgency of ridding America of Donald Trump. Voters largely understood Mr. Biden, with his long history, to be a man of the moderate left. As for Mr. Obama, yes, but his party has gone further left since he departed the White House, and it’s a particular kind of leftism, the abstract and academic kind. It’s theory-laden, detached from life; it is the left of the innermost sanctums of the faculty lounge and “The Groups,” interest groups that are big, well-funded and dug in at major Democratic power centers, and which focus on identity politics of all kinds, and climate change.

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The president is getting no credit as a high-spending lunch-pail populist, but is seen as a high spender who services The Groups. That’s why he went to the picket line in Detroit, to get some lunch-pail cred.

His policy problem feeds his persona problem. When you don’t like policies, you take a tougher look at the man who carries them forward. You’re quicker to name his flaws. You don’t feel affectionate and forgiving—“My uncle Mike was slowing down, getting spacey, but he had a decency that time couldn’t change. The night of the fire, he’s the one who saved everything.” Instead people say of Joe Biden: He’s gaga, he’s senile, and the son—jeez, ya think the father was in on it? They’re less forgiving than they were two years ago, when he was also in decline and the laptop was already famous.

Some other points on the polls. There is no way half the country misses Donald Trump, but far more than half the country misses 2019.

Twenty twenty changed our country. Pandemic, George Floyd, riots. That last, not the demonstrations and marches but the riots, which weren’t reported or officially labeled as what they were, hardened things in America. If it’s true that racial minorities are detaching from the Democratic Party, the reason can be traced back to then, when the party and big media refused to see the shopkeeper’s agony.

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Donald Trump finally left the presidency in January 2021, humiliatingly thrown from office. But the repercussions of 2020 continued to develop, or burrowed in, after he departed. Crime is so bad that big chain stores are leaving cities and neighborhoods, everything in the drugstore is locked behind plexiglass. No one stops the criminals. No one wants to be a cop anymore; as a profession it’s been demonized. If a bad guy is, against the odds, arrested, he’s out the next day. Inflation came; illegal immigration started surging. Among Mr. Biden’s first acts on his first day as president was to sign an executive order making it easier for them to come.

Political professionals, being highly sophisticated and having come to regard themselves that way, forget or don’t notice that regular people are pretty sophisticated too. They see trend lines. They smoke them out quickly and make connections. They look at crime and see that even if the government changed its ways and started arresting, holding and trying street criminals, it would take years for that to show any real impact on the streets. They know that it will be years before America can get control of its southern border and convince would-be lawbreakers not to come, and show the drug cartels they no longer have the upper hand.

Both are long-term problems that weren’t problems in 2019. Now they’re crises.

As to inflation, former Rep. Vin Weber said something arresting the other night on one of Mark Halperin’s online Wide World of News conversations. It was off the record but Mr. Weber later gave permission to use it. His thought was that the inflation we’re now experiencing came suddenly. In past inflationary times it was gradual—think Gerald Ford and Whip Inflation Now, followed by Jimmy Carter’s inflation worries. But this time people have clear and recent recollections of lower, stable prices. Thus they don’t take comfort that inflation is “easing.” They want prices to go back down.

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Someone else, it’s unclear who, followed up: It takes time for inflation to build and come out of a system. Once you let the genie out it takes time to get it back in.

People will think: To the extent inflation is caused by high government spending, well, that isn’t going to end tomorrow. To the extent it’s the supply chain, any number of shocks could knock it further off track. To the extent it’s human greed, good luck overcoming that.

So crime, illegal immigration, inflation—it’s not only that they’re here, it’s that no one expects them to go away soon.

That’s the president’s enduring problem: People see trend lines.

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