Biden’s Other Big Liability: Not Speaking to Economic Pain

If the president's catastrophic debate performance didn’t sink his reelection chances, his deeply flawed campaign strategy likely will. Cost-of-living issues dominate voter concerns, but Biden's 2024 campaign isn't geared toward voters’ material interests.

US president Joe Biden views the fireworks display over the National Mall on July 4, 2024, in Washington, DC. (Tierney L. Cross / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

It doesn’t seem to matter which poll you look at: the cost-of-living crisis is at the top of voters’ minds.

Gallup reports that inflation is the issue the most Americans say they worry a lot about, YouGov polling shows “inflation and high prices” ranked as the most important issue area by Democratic and Republican voters alike, and Data for Progress says “economy, jobs, and inflation” is the foremost area of consideration for all voters and undecided voters when they fill out their ballots.

Liberal pundits sometimes write off these sentiments as confused or dishonest or merely partisan outrage, pointing to falling inflation rates. But inflation isn’t the same as cost. The rate of inflation is falling, but prices are not — we’re still living with the effects of past inflationary surges.

Consider food prices. Average annual household food costs have increased 35 percent since 2020, according to my analysis of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data. How many people’s wages have kept up with this? The three largest annual increases in household food costs on record happened in the last three years. The only years food costs consumed more than 11 percent of household income were 2022 and 2023.

Household food costs increased 35 percent since 2020. This red line chart shows average annual food expenditures per US household over time from 1997 to 2023. It steadily increases pretty much every year until it shoots dramatically upward after 2020. Data: United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). More:

Joe Biden had no answer for elevated food costs at the debate. Literally. In the first question of the evening, Jake Tapper referenced stubbornly high grocery prices before asking Biden, “What do you say to voters who feel they are worse off under your presidency than they were under President Trump?” (In swing states, just 32 percent of respondents say they’re better off under Biden.)

Many voters probably would have liked to hear a plan from the president: 80 percent of Americans say the most notable price increase since 2020 has been for groceries, and 27 percent reported skipping meals because of the surge in costs.

Despite Tapper’s helpful nudge, Biden offered no plan to bring food prices down, or at least help people deal with the new normal (he could’ve proposed a $15 minimum wage, for example). After the debate, CNN’s Erin Burnett said Biden “knows every one of these questions is coming.”

The stark voter emphasis on food prices and the cost of living generally reflects genuine need: polls unrelated to the election show staggering numbers of people reporting food insecurity and financial hardship. Unsurprisingly, recent message testing found that voters respond much more positively to a class-based, economic populist message than they do one centered on abstract ideas like democracy.

“Preserving America’s democracy is the central cause of my presidency,” Biden declared at a campaign rally early this year. Biden’s chief strategist, Mike Donilon, told the New Yorker in March that their campaign is primarily about “democracy” and “the soul” of the nation. By the time the election rolls around, Donilon said in March, “The focus will become overwhelming on democracy. I think the biggest images in people’s minds are going to be of January 6.”

This is not a credible theory of victory. January 6 isn’t even the main thing most people associate with the Trump administration. Just 5 percent of respondents polled in May answered January 6 when asked to name the one thing they remembered most from Donald Trump’s presidency. Donilon is privately reassuring skeptical colleagues that voters will “do the right thing” in November.

Biden’s successful 2020 presidential campaign didn’t rely on this sort of empty moralism. In 2020, the issues the Biden campaign mentioned most, according to an analysis of its TV ads, were COVID-19, health care, and the economy. During the 2020 debates, Biden spoke in support of a multitrillion-dollar climate and social investments and a $15 minimum wage. The strategy was about emphasizing Biden’s policy plan to rapidly reverse deteriorating human security conditions.

The 2024 strategy is devoid of that ambition and empathy. It relies instead on Biden persuading enough people to vote for him through appeals to grand ideas about democracy and “the soul of America.” That would be a tall order for any candidate, and likely impossible for one whose lack of speaking facility is as shocking as Biden’s. The results of this strategy speak for themselves: his approval rating hit a record low before the debate last month and just hit a new record low this month. He is a historically weak candidate.

In December, Biden was asked, “Do you think there is any Democrat who could defeat Donald Trump other than you?” Biden responded, “Probably fifty of them.” To avoid another Trump term, Democrats need to ditch Biden and his strategy.