Is Biden's tanking approval rating a simple side effect of rising gas prices?

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Well … no, and no one is claiming that it is. Even this analysis from the lefty outfit Data for Progress allows that the backlash to Biden’s half-assed withdrawal from Afghanistan dented his job approval beyond what one would expect from the increase in gas prices at the time.

But their data is interesting. And it makes sense intuitively that gas prices might have an outsized effect on people’s opinions about the president. It’s a cost Americans feel directly and can’t avoid, which they understand is tied directly to federal policy, foreign and domestic. When prices rise at the supermarket, it’s not obvious to the average joe that the White House is responsible. But when they hear about Joe Biden trying to close down pipelines while they’re paying more at the pump, naturally they’re going to blame him.

Hmmmm:

When DFP excluded Biden’s approval numbers from the Afghanistan withdrawal period at the end of August, the correlation between his job approval and gas prices since January was almost perfect. Hmmmmmmmmm.

Correlation isn’t causation, of course. Rising gas prices may not be driving the Biden approval train so much as running on a track parallel to it. Maybe Biden’s polling began to sink initially due to his post-inaugural honeymoon period ending and then the trend continued due to a barrage of bad news about COVID (the rise of Delta), the Afghanistan debacle, the Democratic stalemate over infrastructure, and then the dawning reality of indefinite inflation. Meanwhile, supply-chain problems, resistance from OPEC on pumping more oil, and inflation were pushing gas prices up steadily over the same span. There’s surely some overlap between Biden’s decline and gas becoming more expensive — again, it’s a special commodity — but not a 1:1 relationship despite what the graphs show.

Still, if Biden’s approval and gas prices were on parallel tracks before, they’re on the same track now thanks to inflation. Dems have the political equivalent of cancer, a problem that threatens to consume and destroy the party next year unless it’s treated aggressively. But how? Short of the Fed raising rates, which would create major political risks of its own (political chemotherapy?), there aren’t many tools available to Biden. Releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would ease gas prices but only temporarily. Josh Kraushaar floats another idea: How about putting the brakes on the Build Back Better reconciliation mega-bill to show Americans that the White House shares their anxiety about further federal spending driving prices higher?

That doesn’t mean Democrats need to abandon their principles, but they need to be responsive to public sentiment. Don’t spend months denying the reality of inflation and the inconvenience of supply shortages, when voters are clearly telling you it’s a problem. Come up with a plan to deal with those issues instead of lazily claiming your long-planned $1.75 trillion in additional social spending will magically solve the problem. Start talking more like New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams about the need for a larger police presence in urban hot spots, and challenge some of the far-left district attorneys who are drawing friendly fire from within (like San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who is facing a recall in June). And when your administration is pitching infrastructure to working-class Americans, don’t frame it as an equity issue.

Two problems with pulling the plug on BBB, though. One is the risk that progressives will be incensed and turn away from the party, making its task even harder in 2022. Biden may calculate that the first step to limiting losses in the midterms is making sure that his own base turns out. If they don’t, even winning swing voters from the GOP might not be enough to hold off a red wave. Gotta keep the lefties happy. The other problem, as Kraushaar notes, is that the White House has already begun pushing the idea that BBB itself is effective medicine for inflation. Which may be true — long-term. Short-term, it’s likely to have either no effect or to make the problem worse. Dem strategists have begun wondering what happens if they pass Build Back Better after weeks of promises that it’s the cure for what ails America and then inflationary problems deepen.

“It’s a much better argument to say, ‘this is not going to make inflation worse,’ than to say, ‘this is going to solve the inflation problem,’” Gleckman said. “It’s not sensible policy to say our response to inflation is to give people more money.”…

It’s a “huge risk” to sell Build Back Better as an anti-inflationary measure at all, a source close to the White House told The Daily Beast. After passage, inflation could easily persist, and Democrats facing tough reelections in 2022 could be vulnerable to GOP attacks that they sold a false bill of goods.

“I think we’re going to faceplant on it,” this source said.

But what’s the alternative? They have three options here. Cancel BBB, enraging the left; press ahead with BBB and admit that spending another $1.85 trillion is a weird, risky move in an inflationary economy; or press ahead with BBB, spin it as anti-inflationary, and hope that prices begin to decline for other reasons following passage so that they can then falsely credit the bill for having solved the problem. Door number three is the least bad alternative, no?

Go read NYT columnist Thomas Edsall, who’s already past the anxiety stage about Democrats’ political troubles and is descending into shock. One political scientist he spoke to for his latest piece framed the problem for him succinctly: Biden was actually cursed by Democrats winning a Senate majority in the Georgia runoffs since that left him with no excuse to not pursue a massive, massively progressive economic agenda. If McConnell were still in charge of the Senate, Biden would be stuck passing incrementalist, bipartisan measures — the sort of thing swing voters expected from him as part of his centrist “return to normalcy” pitch last year. Instead he’s tried to govern like FDR despite having bare majorities in both chambers. Maybe getting wiped out next fall will be good for him in 2024.

I’ll leave you with this. When you don’t have a strategy for easing inflation, you have to resort to accusing the other party of cheering it on.