Beside her truck, which used to cost $100 to fill but now takes $145 to top off, the 30-year-old construction worker feels exasperated as she assesses a $300 grocery bill that shoots up to $400 when she adds vegetables.
“I don’t want to say this, but when Donald Trump was here, it was nothing like this,” said Godinez, who said she used to lean Republican but has supported Democrats in recent years. “I’ve been worried, because instead of things getting better, it is getting worse every time. … I don’t know if it’s the President, or what happened, but (under Trump) it was so much better.”
These are three snapshots from a nation exhausted and driven to political distraction by the worst public health crisis in 100 years, its punishing economic consequences and the political estrangement left in the detritus of the Donald Trump presidency.
Did Democrats make a strategic error?
The deprivation felt in a swing state like Nevada, which is home to a key Senate race this year, and across the nation reflects the unpromising environment for Democrats trying to maintain control of Congress. It also raises questions about the legislative priorities of their narrow Senate and House majorities. The situation is not without irony, since Biden placed improving the lives of American workers at the center of his agenda.
Even some Nevada Democrats still loyal to Biden expressed frustration with what they view as their party’s inability to explain its accomplishments over the last year. Mark Weinberger, a 74-year-old retired dentist from Reno, described Biden’s communication as “piss poor.”
“Biden needed to communicate more of what he accomplished, and what he did, but none of that has been out,” Weinberger said.
It’s true that Trump and his acolytes pose the greatest threat to American democracy of modern times, and Democrats feel compelled to act. But lofty speeches over the right to vote, like Biden’s in Atlanta on Tuesday, can seem esoteric compared with the reality of a $400 grocery bill. And if Biden isn’t completely to blame for high inflation, he’s probably going to get the blame anyway. That’s how politics works.
Many economic experts argue that rising inflation can largely be explained by the extreme circumstances of the pandemic. Supply chains are clogged — as factories in Asia close amid waves of infections and transportation seizes up in ports and rail yards. Americans stuck at home for months have money to burn, further injecting demand into the economy and hiking prices.
But some voters in Nevada are convinced that by pumping trillions of public money into the economy with spending bills, Democrats caused soaring prices — a view being amplified by Republicans.
Jessica Morrison, a 41-year-old independent and single mom, thinks Democrats “jumped the gun” with their Covid relief package last year and “gave the aid too fast” — leading her to believe that caused the prices of everyday items to soar.
“I don’t think we needed it then,” she said of the government aid, arguing that she could do with the help now with goods hard to find and prices higher. “We did all this stuff, and everybody scaled back and now no one knows what to do. Pure chaos,” Morrison said.
It’s not unusual to find a contradiction between the lived experience of working Americans and the dry analysis of economic data. But politically, it doesn’t matter whether it is true that aid packages over cranked the economy. If enough voters believe that is the case, the damage could be incalculable for Biden, and to Democrats who face a long-shot battle to keep control of the House and the Senate.
The White House misjudged inflation
In the medium term, a country that is learning to live with the virus could see higher growth, lower inflation and some economic breathing room in the next year. But time is running out for a post-pandemic, preelection boom.
While some Republicans, like the House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, seem most concerned with proving to Trump they’d be vessels of his political revenge in the majority, others are directing a more focused, effective attack on the Democrats.
Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the House Ways and Committee who is not running for reelection in November, seized on government data showing that inflation surged year-on-year by 7% in December, the highest rate since June 1982, when Ronald Reagan was president and “E.T” was the big new movie release.
“This crushing report shows Democrats’ spending has pushed Bidenflation to achieve the highest prices in 40 years, killing family budgets and wiping out three years of wage gains,” Brady said in a statement.
“No one is buying Democrats’ excuses: The American people are suffering as they watch this Administration refuse to lift a finger to help them out of this crisis.” An email sent out by the Republican National Committee mailing list was even more scathing, mocking “bare shelves Biden.”
A bad message for November
In the 1980s, leaders of market economies lived in fear of the disastrous impact of inflation on their careers. But it’s been years since that was the case, which is one reason why rising prices may be so shocking now. While the inflation rate is well below its peak in that decade, the food price index climbed 6.3% last year and grocery prices rose 6.5%. It all adds up fast, especially for families already living from paycheck to paycheck.
And Omicron has only made matters worse.
Godinez says the highly infectious new variant aggravated the financial situation that she, her husband and her brother (who lives with them) are facing. Her husband, who works in carpentry, is not paid when he is sick and can’t work — a tough reality they are grappling with when they try to do the right thing by staying home to avoid exposing others if one of them is sick. “One week, one person was sick, and then (the next week) it was the other one, then the other one,” she said. “We don’t work a lot. … And who is going to pay us for this?”
Morrison’s political perspective is being shaped by her own reality. In her job at a convention center, she was expected to do “double the work for the same price” as the staff shrunk. “Being a single mom, I couldn’t just leave my kids” — who range in age from 6 to 18 — “to school themselves,” she said. Now she’s dipping into her savings and has little patience for what she sees as Democrats’ inability to solve what feels like an economic crisis.
“They’re the big dogs on the Hill. It’s their job to figure out how they’re going to help us survive,” she said.
Weinberger, the Reno dentist, worries that Biden’s struggle to corral a divided party will hurt him in November.
“Everybody’s going off in all different directions in the Democratic Party. There’s no unifying stance on anything,” Weinberger said, remarking that such disarray was hardly a winning midterm election message.