Inflation and climate change make for strange policy competitors. But here we are with the highest inflation in 13 years and supply chain bottlenecks disrupting everything from home building and auto sales to food and energy prices.
And where is President Joe Biden and most of his Cabinet off to in 12 days? That would be the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow.
Instead of hosting an inflation summit here at home or announcing actions to spur employment and growth, the Biden team will be hobnobbing with its international counterparts as ships continue to stack up at Long Beach and store shelves begin to empty while the nation’s supply chain logjams drive up prices and shortages for basic necessities that affect every American.
That’s not to say the issue of climate change isn’t important to people — to some much more than others. Polling in recent years has seen Americans become more concerned with climate change and more supportive of federal action to address it.
A Gallup poll from March found two-thirds of respondents saying they were “concerned about global warming,” with 43 percent “a great deal” worried and 22 percent “a fair amount.” Other research has shown that Americans increasingly believe government must take more steps to address the global climate problem.
But to judge the saliency of climate change as a political issue, we should put its importance to voters in context, and most data indicates that climate change, while a major issue, isn’t the top priority of most people.
An Oct. 13-14 Ipsos poll asked people about “the most important problem facing the U.S. today?” Twenty-one percent said the economy, unemployment and jobs. Next came public health at 13 percent, immigration at 9 percent and climate change at 8 percent.
An Oct. 15-18 Quinnipiac poll came up with similar results: Eighteen percent said the economy was the most urgent issue facing the country, 16 percent said COVID-19, 15 percent immigration, 9 percent health care and 8 percent climate.
One might think that as the White House sets its legislative and policy priorities, fixing the economy — what Americans care most about — would top the list. But with Democrats’ progressive wing dominating policy priorities, the economy has become a second-tier issue as progressives hold the bipartisan infrastructure bill hostage to multitrillion-dollar social spending programs. Ignoring the will of the people can have disastrous consequences, especially after a year and a half of a pandemic and economic shutdown.
That’s a lesson that Biden should have learned 10 years ago when President Barack Obama opted to put passage of his Affordable Care Act ahead of the top concern of the majority of Americans — fixing the economy and creating jobs. While health care was obviously a very important issue, Obama chose not to make the No. 1 issue, creating jobs, the Democrats’ No. 1 issue. As a result, with 19 consecutive months of 9 percent or greater unemployment leading up to the 2010 midterms, that decision cost Democrats 63 seats in the House and their majority.
Maybe think of it this way: A slightly overweight man sees his doctor for a broken leg. As he sits waiting for some relief, the doctor begins to lecture him about his weight, telling him that “you need to start losing weight or risk a heart attack.” That may well be true, but what the patient wants now is his broken leg set and put in a cast. He wants the doctor to do something to fix his current problem.
Today, fixing the economy by getting people back to work, getting inflation under control and getting goods and services flowing again are what most people want. Most economists quoted in financial columns and on cable tend to focus on national economic data delivered every month or quarter by the Fed and federal agencies like the Bureau of Labor Statistics along with a number of academic and financial institutions.
These economic measurements matter, particularly at the macro level, as they provide government and business leaders with data-driven assessments of the overall state of the economy, crucial to both government and corporate decision-making.
Hits where it hurts
But for most people, while GDP numbers are important, they are an abstraction. Inflation isn’t. Our September Winning the Issues survey asked people whether they believed inflation was increasing? Voters agreed that it was, 72 percent to 13 percent. And, in October, when we asked if inflation was impacting them, 63 percent said either “a lot” or “some.”
Consumers can feel the effects of inflation when the price of bacon goes up 24 percent in the course of the last 9 months or eggs by 25 percent and a gallon of gas by 40 percent. Or when Proctor & Gamble announces, as it did this week, that it is raising prices on a number of household staples, from razors to diapers, because of increased freight costs. There’s nothing abstract about the impact of the supply chain fiasco that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says is “because the president has successfully guided this economy out of the teeth of a terrifying recession.”
There’s also nothing abstract for most people when they see store after store with “We’re hiring” signs. For them, that’s when the idea of employment challenges becomes less about the monthly labor report and more about local businesses on the brink because they can’t find workers. It’s not a political talking point; it’s personal.
But instead of focusing on inflation or supply chain challenges or helping businesses find employees, the White House and Democrats on the Hill are intent on passing the Build Back Better bill, with its focus on social spending and climate, by Oct. 31 — the date set for a vote by Nancy Pelosi and not uncoincidentally the opening day of the Glasgow summit.
Before Biden and company head off en masse to Scotland, they may want to reflect on the price they may pay for their decision to put other issues and their base priorities ahead of the economy and, in doing so, put progressive demands ahead of what people want more — a robust economy.
In the end, the challenge to both parties is — will they make voters’ No. 1 issue their No. 1 issue?
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as an election analyst for CBS News.