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Joe Biden was in Iowa yesterday, touting ethanol, but not because he’s worried about the state’s caucuses, which are probably going to lose their first-in-the-nation status anyway because of the 2020 fiasco.
No, it’s because he hopes to tamp down gas prices by allowing an ethanol mixture to be used in the summer, brushing aside the usual air pollution concerns.
But the day got off to a lousy start with the government’s release of a chilling figure: 8.5 percent. That’s the inflation rate last month, the highest since back in 1981, and edging closer to double-digit territory. And over half that increase comes from gas prices, even though they’ve come down slightly.
So much for inflation being transitory.
Politically speaking, it’s hard to think of much that’s going right for the Biden administration these days.
The president’s allies argue that journalists aren’t giving him credit for the economy’s roaring comeback. Millions of jobs have been created, and unemployment, at 3.6 percent, is at the lowest level in decades. But many people have come to take that for granted, whereas families feeling the pinch at supermarkets and gas stations are frustrated, and aiming their anger at the party in charge. As past presidents have learned, no amount of messaging can convince people who are uneasy about a fragile economy.
A Politico poll found that more than two-thirds blame rising gas prices on Vladimir Putin and the oil companies, but 51 percent also blamed Biden.
I’ve been surprised that Biden has gotten no bump from what even some Republicans acknowledge is his steady global leadership on Ukraine. But while the Russians have been driven out of Kyiv, the mounting Putin atrocities are horrifying and some feel the White House isn’t doing enough. Foreign policy usually takes a back seat to domestic concerns if American troops aren’t involved.
The Omicron surge more than neutralized the president’s initial success with the vaccine program, and while new virus cases have plummeted, they have crept up by 10 percent with yet another variant. Biden needs no reminder of this, since his attorney general, press secretary and Commerce secretary have tested positive, along with Nancy Pelosi and a number of other members of Congress.
And then there’s the southern border, which is already a mess. The administration is dropping a pandemic-era restriction on the border, which could turn the current flood of migrants into a tsunami. Some experts say that federal agents will simply be overwhelmed.
In purely political terms, this issue is a big loser for the Democrats, which is why Kyrsten Sinema and other party members are joining a group of Republicans in pushing a bill to block the move.
The Democrats, as anyone with a pulse knows, were already heading for a shellacking in the midterms. This cascade of crises–with Biden’s approval rating mired in the mid-40s–could make it even worse.
A minor factor may be that Biden has trouble sustaining a narrative, as he got sidetracked, for instance, by months of fruitless debate over Build Back Better and winding up with squat. He’s caught between the Bernie wing and the moderate types and can’t control his own party.
All this is exacerbated by the fact that the president doesn’t engage much with the media–he’s done one sit-down interview in recent months–and his Twitter feed is deliberately dull. He disappears from the news cycle on his Delaware and Camp David weekends.
Maybe it’s a good thing that Biden doesn’t dive into each passing controversy–can you imagine Donald Trump staying silent on the Will Smith slap?–but it leaves a void. And that void is filled by Republicans, critics, pundits and others. Even Biden’s competent but colorless Cabinet doesn’t make much news.
Plenty can change in politics in just seven months. But it’s hardly a secret that Democrats are very nervous about the November elections.