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opinion

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to reporters on the South Lawn, before he and first lady Jill Biden depart aboard Marine One at the White House, on June 17.PETE MAROVICH/The New York Times News Service

Thirty years ago, James Carville, the political strategist behind Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential run, posted a sign in the campaign’s Little Rock, Ark., headquarters with a blunt reminder about what really matters to voters: “The economy, stupid.”

At the time, the U.S. was mired in recession, and then-president George H.W. Bush’s approval rating was plummeting from an all-time high of 90 per cent following the U.S. victory in the Persian Gulf War a year earlier. Despite high praise for his leadership in the war, Mr. Bush was seen as out of touch with the economic pains felt by average Americans – a disconnection from reality made more acute by his now-legendary comments during a campaign photo-op about how amazed he was by a simple supermarket bar-code scanner.

Fast-forward three decades, and it’s clear Mr. Carville’s three little words are as relevant now as they were then – maybe more so.

The U.S. inflation rate has soared to a four-decade high, hitting 8.6 per cent this year, compared with 6.8 per cent in Canada. Gas prices continue to climb, passing a national average of US$5 a gallon last week, with some stations in California charging nearly US$10.

The stock markets lurched into bear-market territory this week, with major averages cliff-diving almost daily. There are shortages of everything from baby formula to beef on store shelves and online, and predictions of more food scarcity on the way. Wall Street executives and economists are warning another recession is just around the corner, with a tightening of the job market to follow.

Like Mr. Bush before him, U.S. President Joe Biden has seen his approval rating slide. It dropped for the third straight week this week, hitting 39 per cent, according to new polls by Reuters-Ipsos and FiveThirtyEight, worse than former president Donald Trump’s rating at the same time in 2018. Both polls found more than 54 per cent of Americans disapprove of Mr. Biden’s job performance.

Mr. Biden’s report card on the economy is even less flattering. A new Fox News poll found approval of his handling of the economy is at 29 per cent around the country. His handling of inflation is even lower, at 21 per cent.

To be sure, approval ratings are not the only important metric. But they reflect the fact a majority of Americans feel Mr. Biden doesn’t get it. He has been slow to react to the crisis, thin on real strategic solutions and, in the case of gas prices, unwilling to acknowledge that his moves away from U.S. energy independence have exacerbated the crisis during the Russia-Ukraine war.

Mr. Biden has blamed most everyone but his own administration for the economic troubles, including companies he says are price gouging, without compelling evidence to support the claim. This week he sent letters to leaders of the seven major oil companies suggesting it is their patriotic duty to help, and pledged to use “all tools at my disposal” to lower prices.

Yet it is his policy moves, including heavy regulations, that have turned the U.S. from an energy exporter with low energy prices into a country once again dependent on foreign oil. He killed the Keystone Pipeline project with Canada and terminated oil exploration leases – all in the name of a green energy agenda that, while aspirational, is not yet practical.

Furthermore – and perhaps something that might prompt Mr. Carville to put a sign in the Oval Office – Mr. Biden and the Democrats seem overly focused on partisan stump issues at the expense of paying appropriate attention to real action on the economy. Their diversionary tactics are not lost on the American public.

Politically, the President’s tone-deafness to the current economic crisis faced by Americans is increasingly precarious for Democrats leading into the fall midterm elections. Down the line in 2024, it may take him into the same territory that cost Mr. Bush the presidency three decades ago.

Clearly the numbers reflect the signals Mr. Biden is sending out, suggesting he is as disconnected from the economic reality engulfing the U.S. today as Mr. Bush was in 1992. Many Americans are wondering – and worried – whether the President and his supporters will ever recognize the problem.

Consider this sharp-edged message seen scrawled in big block letters across the back window of a minivan in Miami earlier this week:

“Hey Biden voters,” it read. “For the 33 per cent of you who still believe he is doing a great job, have you considered a cognitive test for yourselves? Just wondering.”

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