President Joe Biden had some good economic news last week. The American economy added 353,000 new jobs, nearly twice what many people predicted. Previous months’ job gains were also revised upward, and for a change, it wasn’t government jobs that were leading the advances. Wages grew faster than expected. Consumer spending was strong.
Simply put, they were really, really good economic numbers.
Biden also had some horrible political news last week. A new poll had his overall approval rating at 37 percent, the lowest of his term. He trailed former President Donald Trump by 20 points on who was best able to handle the economy; the gap was more than 30 points on the issue of controlling the border. Trump even leads Biden by 16 points on who is more “competent and effective.”
Simply put, they were really, really horrid numbers.
Those two things — the economy and Biden’s standing with voters — were supposed to move together, according to many political commentators. If the economy started doing better, the theory went, so would the president’s political standing. That they most certainly have not — at least not yet — suggests that one of three things is happening.
Two may be manageable for Biden in his re-election efforts. The third, however, would be fatal.
The first possibility is that people simply aren’t feeling the rising tide that is lifting the economy. People cannot, for example, eat GDP. Neither do they fill their tanks with low unemployment rates. Voters may still feel that, despite the intelligentsia singing the praises of Bidenomics, it isn’t working for them. The stock market run doesn’t help them if they don’t have any savings; high interest rates are still keeping homeownership out of their reach.
But of course, that could change. And people might be feeling differently by November.
The second possibility is that — in a departure from the ordinary — the economy isn’t what is motivating voters this year. Perhaps this is one of those rare election cycles where another topic is the driving force behind political sentiment. And perhaps that issue this year is immigration.
While border security has typically been used by Republicans to turn out their base, this year could be different. After all, Democratic governors and mayors are decrying the border crisis and blaming Biden for much of the difficulty. Videos of hordes of people at the Mexican border, or illegal immigrants on crime sprees — or kicking policemen in the head and walking away scot-free — are regular staples now on even left-leaning news programs.
It may well be, then, that border security has become a bipartisan issue. Maybe people who start feeling better about their economic condition might still worry about voting for someone who has shown no inclination whatsoever to stop a literal rush of millions of people across our southern border.
But of course, that could change as well. Biden might realize that he has exactly the same ability that Trump did (pre-COVID) to stop illegal immigration. Maybe he will secure the border at least as well as Trump did, using the same tools. That’s hard to imagine — no one really thinks Biden is as tough as Trump on the border issue and many Democrats don’t want him to be — but it is possible.
It’s the last possibility, however, that is would be the real problem for the current president— that something is dogging his approval numbers that he has exactly zero chance of fixing.
What if Biden’s dismal approval numbers are driven by concerns that voters have about his age and his mental acuity? What if “I don’t like his handling of the economy” is code for “He’s just too old”? Or “He’s done a terrible job on the border” really means “I don’t think he’s going to make it another four years?”
People lie to pollsters all the time. Sometimes, as some have suggested about 2016, they were embarrassed to tell pollsters that they were voting for Trump. This year, perhaps it is because they just aren’t comfortable telling a stranger that they are worried about Biden’s diminished mental abilities.
But they don’t seem to be comfortable supporting him either.
Back during one of the Republican debates, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis quipped that Father Time is undefeated. While the line didn’t help DeSantis in the caucuses, it still has the intrinsic value of being true. As the baby boomers age, more and more families have dealt with, or are dealing with, aging and diminishing relatives. Not many people talk about it, of course, because that is really hard to do.
But if people watch television and see Biden mumbling, stumbling, and looking lost and confused, it may well be that they aren’t thinking about inflation or illegal immigration at all.
That would be a serious, serious problem that Biden could never fix. None of us can.
Because while people might start to feel a little more secure about their financial situation, or the administration might decide to tighten up on the border, no one is going to change Joe Biden’s age except Father Time.
Mick Mulvaney, a former congressman from South Carolina, is a contributor to NewsNation. He served as director of the Office of Management and Budget, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and acting White House chief of staff under President Donald Trump.
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Author: Mick Mulvaney, opinion contributor