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4 surprises Biden never saw coming

·Senior Columnist
·4 min read

In early November, President Biden predicted Democrat Terry McAuliffe would win the Virginia governor’s race. McAuliffe lost. In mid-summer, Biden said a spurt of inflation would be temporary. Four months later, inflation has surged to the highest level in 31 years. And in early June, Biden promised a “summer of freedom.” The outbreak of the Delta Covid variant spoiled that.

Biden’s misfires are contributing to a falling approval rating and the diminishing political clout that comes with a drop in popularity. Every president deals with surprises. Donald Trump bungled the Covid pandemic that came from nowhere during his last year in office. Barack Obama got the Tea Party movement and the new politics of anger. George W. Bush got the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Voters don’t expect the president to foretell the future. But the way the president adapts to inevitable surprises often determines whether he succeeds or fails.

US President Joe Biden speaks on infrastructure at the NH 175 bridge over the Pemigewasset River in Woodstock, New Hampshire on November 16, 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden speaks on infrastructure at the NH 175 bridge over the Pemigewasset River in Woodstock, New Hampshire on November 16, 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

Biden, so far, has encountered four major surprises:

Inflation. When Biden took office, the annual rate of inflation was 1.4%. Gasoline averaged $2.50 per gallon. Consumers were still stuck inside and almost nobody was predicting problematic price spirals in 2021.

Inflation is now 6.2%. Gas averages $3.50 per gallon. There are still reasons to think inflation will abate in 2022: part of the problem is a logjam of goods at ports and shortages on the shelves, which will get ironed out eventually. There’s also surging demand for goods, which should ease as consumers shift to more normal patterns and begin spending more on services. But inflation is still damaging consumer confidence, and it’s the main driver of Biden’s plunging approval ratings.

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Biden has acknowledged the problem and suggested it won’t end any time soon, earning a point or two for straight talk. But voters want Biden to solve the problem and, like any president, there’s not a lot he can do. There’s also a grain of truth to the charge that the stimulus plan Biden championed in March contributed to current inflation by transferring billions of dollars to consumers, ratcheting up demand for goods. If inflation persists at this level or worsens by the middle of 2022, that alone could trigger a wipeout for Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections.

Energy. Rising oil and gas prices have put Biden in the awkward position of asking Middle East countries to pump more oil while at the same time calling for a green-energy revolution and the phase-out of fossil fuels. Even more odd is Biden asking foreign countries for a favor when the fracking revolution has made the United States the world’s biggest oil producer, with domestic drillers fully capable of producing more. A further problem: Enthusiasm for green energy in many countries may be discouraging investment in oil and gas and curtailing supplies of the energy forms most people use right now. Biden seems not to have considered the possible unintended consequences of government policies that move the economy in a particular direction but leave consumers vulnerable.

Gasoline prices are displayed at a Marathon station, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in Miami Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
Gasoline prices are displayed at a Marathon station, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in Miami Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Covid. The emergence of the Delta variant over the summer clearly hamstrung the economy. Wary consumers still aren’t back to normal and some idle workers are still worried about going back to work and contracting the virus. Chinese factories, meanwhile, are still grappling with Covid-related shutdowns that cut into the supply of goods and push prices up. Nobody blames Biden for Covid, but he gambled earlier this year by suggesting the end of the pandemic was near. It wasn’t.

Voter blowback. Biden campaigned with McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race, a bet by both of them that Biden’s popularity would boost the Democratic candidate. Whoops. Biden and the whole Democratic party failed to grasp that voters are already fed up with Democratic infighting and with a social-welfare agenda that lacks strong public backing. Voters are worried about inflation, school curricula and crime, but they don’t see Democrats doing much about those issues. If Biden didn’t believe his declining poll ratings, McAuliffe’s startling loss in Virginia—which Biden won by 10 percentage points in 2020—should blare an alarm: Voters have turned.

Biden’s presidency isn’t doomed, yet. Inflation could wane, and the Covid pandemic will peter out at some point. There can be good surprises, as well as bad ones. But a bit more agility might help Biden get ahead of problems before they start to weigh him down.

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips.

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