As prices for daily goods continue to skyrocket, inflation has been top of mind for Americans. So, when attention turned to President Biden for Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, the country hoped for a convincing plan to curb the rising worries and prices.
While the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that Biden saw a significant jump his overall approval rating to 47% – an 8-point bump since February – the president failed to see a bump among independent voters. This is especially true for voters who voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020.
Our monthly edition of The Swing-Voter Project, a focus group with Trump-Biden voters in key swing states, only enforced this point further. This month’s 13 respondents – comprised of eight Independents, four Republicans, and one Democrat – were thoroughly unimpressed with Biden’s address of inflation.
While nine out of 13 respondents thought Biden struck the right tone when speaking to his experience and understanding of the economic issues they face, only four respondents actually believed that his plans would get inflation under control.
During the focus groups, we played a segment of the speech dealing with steps the President is taking to combat inflation. He called for capping the price of insulin, enabling Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription medicines, giving tax credits for implementing energy efficiency measures, and making childcare more affordable, among other steps. The challenge for the President is most of our respondents did not think this would bring down prices down.
So where did he go wrong?
Some found Biden’s plans not feasible.
“[Biden is] saying to [raise] pay wages but lower [the] cost of things, and I just don’t see how that can work because the companies that are the ones who’ll have to [raise] the wages are going to want to [raise the price of] their product…. so, I’m just not really for sure that the whole premise of that would work out in the end,” said Misty, 42, from Fort Worth, Texas.
June, 53, from Lutz, Florida, agreed: “I think it’s going to take a bit more time, like the length of his four years, to get [inflation] under control…. Things are on the rise now, so who’s to say in six months where we’re going to be?”
But for others, Biden’s plan just focused on the wrong things. The President addressed drug prices, childcare, and clean energy, but he failed to address these swing voters’ main concerns.
For Shawn, 52, from Philadelphia, PA, the primary focus should have been the rising prices of oil:
“Buying foreign oil… makes [prices] go up because 90% of our goods around the country are put on a truck and brought to a place, and they all have to pay the gas, and all that cost gets passed on. I work for a manufacturing company and I see it all the time… I have to put premium [gasoline] in my car, and it’s $4.50 a gallon, $4.00 for just the regular….That’s a constant cost every day that I have to pay. So, while childcare and those are all great things… when gas [price] goes up, everything goes up.”
And for Brian, 43, from Lewisville, TX, the market’s supply chain was his main worry.
“I have a real concern about government influences and the economy… I think that giving people more money actually increases inflation…if you have more money and not enough supply, that’s going to make prices rise. So, I’m really concerned that this creates some artificial price increase… I would lean towards that easing of supply chain restraints and more encouragement for workers who have stepped out of the workforce to get back in.”
Biden’s inflation plan wasn’t the only part of his address that brought about concern. His general appearance was also a point of contention.
Some were pleased with Biden, describing his general demeanor as “presidential,” as well as “confident and proud.” “For 80 years old, he looks pretty good,” said Brian.
Others, however, found his presentation to be alarming, describing him as “confused,” “geriatric,” and even so far as exhibiting signs of “early-onset dementia.”
The President’s age is showing, and it isn’t inspiring confidence. Indeed, the combination of his perceived senility and his lackluster plan for inflation could lead to a further dip in public approval.
But while his State of the Union Address may not have won him many points, there is a silver lining for his supporters: only seven of the thirteen respondents watched any portion of it. His shaky performance may not be noticed by the general public.
Biden’s inflation plan, at least for swing voters, missed in a big way. But in a busy world with a frantic news cycle, it may not end up mattering.
Rich Thau is the president of the research firm Engagious, which specializes in message testing and message refinement for trade associations and advocacy groups. He is also the moderator of the Swing Voter Project, conducted in partnership with Schlesinger Group. Susie Pieper is a student at Haverford College and an intern at Engagious.