The Economy Should Be an Albatross Around Biden’s Neck – But Will It Be?

poll biden economy
Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

By Philip Wegmann for RealClearPolitics

As President Biden embarks on his reelection campaign, a majority of American voters are dissatisfied with his stewardship of the U.S. economy. Aware of the general angst among the electorate, Biden is threading the needle by saying he’s running on the strength of his overall record, while vowing to “finish the job” that he started when he stepped into the Oval Office.

It’s a daunting task, with an overwhelming majority of registered voters expressing deep pessimism about the economy: 40.2% say the United States is currently in a recession, 17% call it a general state of stagnation, and 10.4% believe the country is in an outright depression.

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The dour assessment comes from a new joint survey by RealClear Opinion Research and Emerson College Polling Institute. The political takeaway could very well be defined by a single word: opportunity.

Topline findings: Full polling breakdown

Independent voters are consistently aligned with the Republican Party when it comes to economic questions such as the federal deficit and free trade. According to pollster Spencer Kimball, associate professor at Emerson College, the general dissatisfaction with the economy, and independent voter sympathy for the GOP point of view, “could present an opportunity for Republicans in 2024.”

Across demographic and political divides, inflation remains top of mind with 70% of voters identifying the now persistent phenomenon and the cost of living as the single most important economic challenge facing the economy. Biden agrees. He has for some time now.

For more than a year, the president has called combatting inflation his “top domestic priority.” But as his administration and federal regulators struggle through a variety of controls to achieve a soft landing, a scenario where inflation is throttled down without stalling markets, the president has not abandoned his push to transform the system from “the so-called trickle-down economy” to one “that works for working families.”

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The rubber will likely meet the road on that question this summer, or whenever Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen can calculate an “X-date,” the moment when revenues run out and the federal government can no longer pay its bills. The debate is over raising the debt ceiling, the legal amount the Department of the Treasury can borrow. House Republicans want spending cuts in exchange for a borrowing limit increase. The White House refuses to negotiate. The consequence of an unresolved stalemate? A historic default.

This fight unsurprisingly divides partisans along party lines. A majority of Democrats (50%) agree with Biden that the debt ceiling should be raised. A larger majority of Republicans, 62%, do not want an increase in federal borrowing authority.

But while there is no consensus on the wonky but critical question, a closer look at the numbers suggests an advantage for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy over federal spending. “An issue for Democrats is that independents align with Republicans on not raising the debt ceiling,” Kimball explained, adding that their hesitation could stem from “their concern about inflation.”

More independent voters, 46%, believe that the debt ceiling should not be raised than those who say that it should be (29%) – a finding that may pique the attention of lawmakers as the borrowing debate rages on Capitol Hill, especially now as a record number of Americans identify not as Republican or Democrat but as independent of either party.

Last month, Biden released his proposed annual budget, an aspirational document with little hope in Congress, and touted his plan to reduce the deficit by nearly $3 trillion over the next decade. “Don’t tell me what you value,” the president is fond of saying. “Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” A majority of Americans, if they have even seen that document, don’t believe Biden values fiscal responsibility.

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Fifty-one percent of voters disapprove of how Biden has handled the federal budget deficit while just 32% approve. Another 17% are unsure on the question. Kimball reported that conservatives were most uniform in their opposition, noting that “Republicans most strongly disapprove of Biden’s handling of the federal budget deficit, with 84% disapprove, 11% unsure, and just 5% approve.”

The finding that could raise the alarm inside the administration? According to the survey, 52% of independent voters disapprove of the way Biden has handled national finances. Of course, that spending story can’t be told without an account of the once-in-a-century pandemic. The same is true of Biden himself: His presidency and the pandemic are inextricably linked.

Earlier this month, the president signed legislation passed by Congress to end the national emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government Accountability Office reported previously that there is about $90 billion remaining from the more than $4.6 trillion in emergency money that Congress appropriated to ease the economic effects of the pandemic, spending that both Republican and Democratic economists warned could overheat the economy.

Even as they name inflation their top concern, a majority of voters still believe that spending was necessary and a good idea. For instance, 63% report that the CARES Act which former President Trump signed into law was “a good idea.” A similar-sized majority, 59%, said the same about Biden’s American Rescue Plan. With the pandemic in the rearview mirror, 34% report that there wasn’t enough, 28% say the right amount was spent, and 38% believe too much was distributed from the government.

The pollsters gauged approval of the spending legislation with and without the names of the presidents who signed them into law.

Tell a voter that Trump was behind the CARES Act, Kimball said, and it “helps him among Republicans, hurts him with Democrats but has little impact on independent voters and their attitudes toward the legislation.” The same cannot be said for Biden and his American Rescue Plan, however. According to the pollster, “Biden’s name attached to a policy does not help the president; instead, his name on legislation hurts its support, particularly among independents.”

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Regardless of which president signed what COVID relief package, an overwhelming majority of Americans report concern that the money was mismanaged or abused. All told, 86% said that abuse of COVID relief programs was a “serious” problem.

Looking back before the pandemic, when asked about the Trump-era tax cuts, 56% replied that the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was “a good idea” compared to 44% who said it was not. A majority of Republicans, 63%, supported the move, and so did a 56% majority of independents. Democrats, however, were split 50% to 50% on the marquee achievement of the previous administration, which Biden has blasted as a giveaway to the wealthy.

When asked about persistent inflation, the administration points to both the pandemic as well as the war in Ukraine as a result. The conservative electorate has started to sour on U.S. involvement in the conflict, but a majority of Americans share Biden’s concerns about Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some 60% believe that Putin will not stop at Kyiv and intends to invade other countries.

Thousands of miles away, the war still concerns Americans at home with 55% reporting that they believe Putin presents a “major threat” to the United States and 36% saying he is “a minor threat.” Just 9% replied that the dictator was no threat at all.

And yet the poll reflects a public mixed on the question of just how much aid the United States should supply to Ukrainian allies. When asked about the $79 billion in military aid and financial support sent to Kyiv, 32% of voters reply that the United States has given the right amount while 25% say the current support is not enough. A plurality, 42%, say the United States has sent too much already.

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Two factors seem determinative of how a voter sees the war in Ukraine and U.S. involvement: age and education. According to Kimball, those with a college degree “are about 10 points more likely to say the U.S. has given the right amount of support or not enough support” than those without a college degree, 63% to 53%.

The survey was conducted between April 10 and 12, polling 1,000 registered voters.

Syndicated with permission from RealClearWire.

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