January 5, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
No, Biden and the Democrats are not sleepwalking toward disaster
Like 2023 in retrospect, they are looking pretty good.
If you’re like me and pay attention to politics every day, you know that one of the foundational truths about last year was that it was terrible. Even as real wages rose, joblessness fell, inflation eased and prices dropped, Very Serious People said nuh-uh, everything’s bad. Joe Biden is sleepwalking toward disaster.
Here’s what Zanny Minton Beddoes, The Economist’s editor-in-chief, said in her teaser of that magazine’s first edition of the new year:
“Our first cover of 2024 looks at Joe Biden’s re-election prospects. Mr Biden’s net approval rating stands at minus 16 points. Donald Trump, leading polls in the swing states where the election will be decided, is a coin-toss away from a second presidential win. Mr Trump should be unelectable, owing to the 91 felonies with which he has been charged in different parts of America. Yet the 81-year-old Mr Biden is so unpopular he may well lose. How did it come to this? At the moment, the Democrats are sleepwalking towards disaster.”
In the beginning of 2023, most people were not paying attention to this year’s election. By the end, they were. In the beginning, 2023 was terrible. By the end, it was pretty good! The stakes of this year’s election motivated people to re-remember last year.
Let’s set aside the silly notion that Biden is failing because “Trump should be unelectable.” Instead, let’s focus on that foundation truth. It’s not that I don’t believe The Economist‘s top editor. I trust that the polling on which she is basing her conclusion is what it is. The polls are not skewed. They are not biased. But I also believe in the protean power of human psychology. What people say at any given moment is subject to “re-remembering” – to revision – and we’re seeing that already.
Before the holiday break, the polling firm Ipsos released the results of a new survey that asked people to rate last year and predict how the new year might be, relative to the previous one. On the whole, people said that 2023 was pretty good! They said things were better for them personally, for their communities, for their families and at the workplace. Indeed, things were better in 2023 than they were for the previous four years! (Ipsos began conducting the poll in 2020.) Not only was 2023 pretty good, respondents said 2024 would be better!
Again, I trust the polling on which Very Serious People base their conclusions. In 2023, it generally showed that most people were in a bad mood. It showed that most people blamed Biden for a “bad economy.” None of us should doubt the data. But what we should do is remember that public opinion is protean. It changes, indeed, it can change rapidly, especially when people start paying attention to politics. In the beginning of 2023, most people were not paying attention to this year’s election. By the end, they were. In the beginning, 2023 was terrible. By the end, it was pretty good! The stakes of this year’s election motivated people to re-remember last year.
They will continue re-remembering. The economy added 216,000 jobs in December, capping off a year that was widely predicted to be The Year of Recession. It was anything but. According to the Post: “The labor market added 2.7 million jobs in 2023, with an average monthly gain of 225,000 jobs. The unemployment rate has now remained below 4 percent for more than two years, a stretch last accomplished in the 1960s. Average hourly wage growth accelerated slightly in December, rising by 4.1 percent over the previous 12 months to $34.27 an hour and continuing to beat inflation, boosting workers’ spending power.”
Not only do people re-remember things over time, they also, yanno, lie. The Ipsos survey did not ask respondents to approve or disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy. It decoupled Biden from people’s sense of their personal situations. And lo! They said that 2023 was better than the last four years and that next year will be better!
Contrast that to the previous year’s polling that linked Biden and the economy. (I don’t have a specific poll in mind, just general polling that gives Very Serious People a foundation on which to base their conclusions.) Republican respondents had a different take from their Democratic and independent counterparts. It turns out that their views of the president colored their views of their personal situations. And lo! “Mr Biden’s net approval rating stands at minus 16 points.”
I don’t expect most Republican respondents to change their minds about the economy in 2024 any more than in 2016 – which is to say, I expect most of them to continue lying to pollsters about their personal situations when asked whether Biden is doing a good job or not. I expect that. Biden probably does, too. He probably can’t do anything to win them over, no matter how gangbusters the economy becomes. However, he can win over Democrats and independents, and he will. Why? Because, as we’ve seen, they’re already re-remembering things.
They won’t go backwards, though. They won’t say that 2023 was pretty bad. That’s good for the president. As long as Democrats and indies continue feeling like things are pretty good, he can present himself as the things-stay-pretty-good guy, as opposed to the agent of chaos that is Donald Trump. Things are stable now, well, anyway, they are stabler than they have been, and that’s probably going to prevent wayward Democrats and indies from thinking about voting for a third party.
So, no. Joe Biden is not sleepwalking toward disaster.
Like 2023, he’s looking pretty good.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.