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Biden's growing credibility gap

Jun 12,2023 - Last updated at Jun 12,2023

STANFORD — Presidents, like quarterbacks or top scorers, tend to get too much credit when things go right or too much blame when they go wrong. And, as with star athletes, this feature of public life is largely out of their control. But when presidents themselves try to take exaggerated credit for perceived successes, or to minimise perceived failures, their credibility can easily suffer for it (especially when the media indulges its penchant for blowing things out of proportion). US President Joe Biden is becoming a case in point.

An American presidency is never just about the president. Also important are the political appointments across executive agencies and departments, from the Cabinet on down. In this respect, Biden has failed to impress. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, once a rising Democratic Party star, has been tarnished by his inadequate responses to supply-chain problems, airline shutdowns, and the toxic-chemical fallout from a train derailment in Ohio. Similarly, Secretary of Homeland Security Alexander Mayorkas has repeatedly claimed that the southern border is secure, even though millions have crossed over illegally in the past year, while cartels continue to ship huge amounts of deadly fentanyl into the country, through both legal and illegal entry points.

Biden’s approach to legislating has been similarly problematic. Since Congress is supposed to have the final say on most issues (subject to a president’s veto and judicial review), a president’s effectiveness should in part be gauged by how well he (it has always been men so far) does in achieving bipartisan support for policies that will endure after he has left office. As Biden himself puts it, “Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”

Yet, in practice, Biden has done exactly the opposite, enacting sweeping, poorly targeted policies that are too costly for the benefits they offer, and that have mostly been passed with razor-thin party-line votes. Biden’s unnecessary $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan helped to drive inflation up to a four-decade high; and of the trillions of dollars in new spending that he has pushed through Congress, only a small fraction, on infrastructure and domestic semiconductor subsidies, has had any Republican support.

When huge policies are rammed through with no support from the other side, they are much more likely to be reversed whenever the opposition party regains power. Hence, ever since President Ronald Reagan’s historic tax cuts and reforms in the 1980s, every subsequent president has shifted tax rates back up or down in a never-ending tug-of-war. This kind of policymaking breeds economic uncertainty, making long-term planning much more difficult for households and businesses.

Biden’s advanced age and frequent lapses (when not reading from a teleprompter) have added to this credibility problem. Many observers, including many Democrats, question whether he should try to serve another term (he would be 86 at the end of it). According to a recent NBC poll, only around one-third of Americans believe Biden is honest and trustworthy or capable of handling crises, and only 28 per cent think he has the “necessary mental and physical health” for the job. While he has done better on his handling of the war in Ukraine, his standing with the public has never recovered from the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Biden tried to portray that debacle as an “extraordinary success” that the military agreed with; but the top military brass soon revealed that to be a lie.

Or consider Biden’s claim to have cut the deficit by a record $1.4 trillion. In fact, the data show that the deficit reduction from 2021 to 2022 was wholly a result of the expiration of huge pandemic spending programmes. “The White House is knowingly twisting the facts,” warned Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Budget. Likewise, Dan White of Moody’s Analytics concludes that, “On net, the policies of the administration have increased the deficit, not reduced it.”

Then there is Biden’s claim that he is not to blame for inflation reaching levels unseen since 1981. When recently asked about the issue, he replied that inflation “was already there when I got here, man. Remember what the economy was like when I got here? Jobs were hemorrhaging, inflation was rising”. This is patently false. When Biden took office, annual inflation was running at 1.4 per cent, a five-year low, and the labour market had already recovered 12.5 million of the 22 million jobs lost nine months earlier in the government-ordered pandemic lockdowns.

Any leader whose claims are not even within hailing distance of reality is bound to lose credibility. But credibility is a president’s most valuable asset for achieving anything important. Biden’s main hope in 2024, when Republicans are generally expected to take back control of the Senate, is for the GOP to renominate former President Donald Trump.

Biden could get his wish. Since there is a large cohort of attractive Republican contenders, we could end up with a repeat of 2016, when 16 other candidates split the non-Trump vote, allowing Trump to clinch the party’s nomination easily. Florida’s successful Governor Ron DeSantis is the only contender whose favourability among Republican voters is even close to Trump’s. Yet Biden should be careful what he wishes for. Trump led in a recent Harvard CAPS-Harris hypothetical matchup by 46 per cent to 41 per cent.

Moreover, Biden also will be facing new headwinds over the next two years. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that a historically high 41 per cent of people feel as though they are not as well off as they once were — and this despite a strong labor market with a low 3.4 per cent unemployment rate and plentiful job openings. The reason is simple: Americans are suffering from falling real wages because of the high inflation that Biden helped cause. Not surprisingly, the same poll puts disapproval of Biden’s performance at the second-highest level of his presidency. Only 7 per cent of respondents would be enthusiastic about a second Biden term, and 30 per cent would be angry about it (for Trump, the figures are 17 per cent and 36 per cent, respectively).

If the Federal Reserve can tame inflation by early 2024 without bringing on a recession, that will of course improve Biden’s chances. But America faces huge challenges both at home and abroad; Russia’s and China’s expansionism, Iran’s nuclear ambition, terrorism, record debt, stubbornly high inflation, political polarisation, and long-run climate risks. Not surprisingly, Americans are pessimistic about the economic, fiscal, and geopolitical future. We desperately need vigorous, thoughtful, honest, unifying leadership to steer us through a potentially perilous period in world history. Who will provide it?


Michael J. Boskin, professor of Economics at Stanford University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, was chairman of George H.W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers from 1989 to 1993. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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