Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 6 March 2024



Joe Biden’s Unhappy State of the Union

Wonder Land: Progressive policy decisions on—among other things—crime, higher education and migrants are hurting Americans. And President Biden gets the blame. Images: AFP/Getty Images/Reuters/Bloomberg News Composite: Mark Kelly

What a cruel cut to have an opinion poll out the past week by, of all places, the

and Siena College, revealing that 43% of respondents say Mr. Biden’s policies have “hurt” them. The Biden presidency has dedicated trillions to infrastructure, climate projects, schools, welfare, pandemic support, student debt—in short, the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It’d be one thing if people said all this hasn’t helped much, but “hurt”?

A basic question: Would the polling results be better if the person hawking these policies the past three years had been Barack Obama, Bill Clinton or even born salesman Gavin Newsom? Mr. Biden’s cognitive decline, always on view, is a contributing factor. But set that aside. Mr. Biden has a political track record to consider.

Granted, he was elected to the Senate for decades, from Delaware. He won a presidential election in 2020 with a historic popular-vote turnout. I can’t forget, though, that in his salad days Mr. Biden failed miserably to mount two presidential runs—in 1988 and 2008. He withdrew in 2008 after the Iowa caucuses, an ironic precursor of Kamala Harris’s quick primary flop in 2020.

The reality could be that Mr. Biden simply doesn’t have it—the magic that makes a person presidential in the public’s mind. “Inspire confidence” is a political cliché, but it matters, and Mr. Biden doesn’t.

Even with Mr. Biden’s liabilities as a compelling presidential personality, the White House is entitled to be frustrated by the anomaly of a growing economy and strong labor market alongside what is manifestly a very sour public mood. This isn’t a happy country at the moment. What’s ailing people?

Especially galling to the White House has to be the recent polls finding that voters, notably Hispanics and blacks, think their lives were “better” under Donald Trump. What did the Trump years have that the Biden era apparently doesn’t?

The one-size-fits-all answer to this question in our time is, it’s the economy, stupid. But with Mr. Biden presiding over a reviving economy and robust stock market, albeit with persistent high prices for consumer basics, there is an additional explanation for the national ennui: It’s the culture, stupid.

The country’s culture, the stuff of daily life, is negative. Ask people to look in any direction and what they see, at best, isn’t the rainbow.

Did anyone ever expect to live in an America with a national shoplifting plague, where all brand-name products in drugstores are behind lock and key? That has become a fact of daily life.

The streets of cities are filled with the mentally ill homeless, and there are complex reasons for that. But there they are, living in the stoned-out filth of tent compounds.

One consequence of progressive theories on bail, prosecutable crimes and police enforcement is young men, freed of constraints, randomly shooting or stabbing other young men or unloading guns in the middle of a nightclub or a celebrating crowd, such as the Kansas City Chiefs parade. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul just ordered the National Guard and state police into New York City’s subway system. This is the price of impunity.

One of the most read articles in this newspaper recently described how the minimum wage, going up this year in 22 states, is driving small restaurants out of business. Family-run restaurants are Main Street, and people see them disappearing.

Immigration policy is also complicated, but what isn’t is the more than four million border encounters with illegal migrants wading across the Rio Grande the past two fiscal years, while the Biden administration did next to nothing. You know what looks sad? Seeing border patrol officers dutifully struggling with this human catastrophe. Now, remarkably, the nonstop migrant mess has become the No. 1 election issue.

The December testimony before Congress of three university presidents about campus antisemitism was disconcerting enough. But for many families it also brought forward the issue of whether college is worth it anymore. The Biden student-debt forgiveness plan, ironically, makes many think of avoiding rather than attending college.

No catalog can leave out wokeness. Say this: It isn’t happy stuff. It’s a constant, widespread source of tension and conflict.

In sum, the Democrats have allowed too many negative feedback loops to develop across society. There is a pervasive sense of being hurt, and in our politics one person gets tagged for that: the president. A similar sense of social hurting didn’t exist in the Trump years. It will take more than one big speech or a different Democratic candidate to turn this around by November.


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Appeared in the March 7, 2024, print edition as 'Joe Biden’s Unhappy Nation'.

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