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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden’s approval is low, except compared with everyone else’s

President Joe Biden, seen in a live television broadcast during the State of the Union address, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, March 7, 2024. (Damon Winter/ The New York Times)

By Paul Krugman

Q. What do you call someone who speaks only one language?

A. An American.

It’s an old joke, but it still works. In fact, I’m monolingual myself, even though my academic work was largely focused on international trade and finance. In my defense, the great bulk of global economic research is published in English; and in general, Americans’ lack of language skills is less important than their insularity, their relative unfamiliarity with what happens and how things work in other nations.

Other countries, especially wealthy ones that more or less match the United States in technological development and general ability to get things done, are a sort of mirror that helps us see ourselves more clearly. Yet many Americans, even supposedly knowledgeable commentators, often seem unaware of both the ways other nations are similar to us and the ways they are different.

In particular, with the looming election on everyone’s mind, how many are aware that President Joe Biden is among the more popular — well, less unpopular — leaders in the Western world?

I’ll come back to that surprising fact, and what it tells us, in a minute. First, let’s talk about some other international comparisons that seem relevant to the current situation.

Although we hear politicians on the campaign trail trying to make hay with the old Reagan-era question — Are you better off than you were four years ago? — there’s a lot of amnesia about what was actually happening in 2020, namely a deadly, terrifying pandemic. To some extent, I guess, people treat COVID-19 as an act of God, beyond the reach of politicians.

But that isn’t really true. No matter what we did, many people were going to die — but the death toll was affected by politics, perhaps especially by the way vaccines became a front in the culture war. And America had a really bad pandemic, even compared with its peers. U.S. life expectancy was already lagging behind comparable countries’ by 2019, but the gap widened after COVID-19 struck.

On the other hand, the U.S. economy experienced an exceptionally strong bounce back from the pandemic recession. Even after adjusting for inflation, U.S. gross domestic product per capita is up 7% since the eve of the pandemic, greatly exceeding growth in other major wealthy economies. This would seem on the face of it to say something good about Biden’s economic policies.

But public perception of our economic performance is strongly colored by rising prices. Inflation — the rate at which prices are rising — has subsided a lot, but prices haven’t and won’t come down. And there have been huge recriminations against policymakers, both the Biden administration and the Federal Reserve, either for supposedly causing the bout of inflation or at any rate failing to prevent it.

Here, however, is a case where the similarities between the wealthiest nations are more revealing than their differences. Inflation surged almost everywhere after the pandemic. And if you take care to compare “apples to Äpfel” — to use the same consumer price measures — inflation has been remarkably similar in different countries. Since the eve of the pandemic, the Harmonized Index of Consumer Prices has risen 19.6% in the United States and 19.8% in the euro area. This strongly suggests that pandemic-related disruptions, rather than national policies, were inflation’s main driver.

Still, inflation rankles voters. Even when income growth exceeds inflation, as it has in the United States, people tend to feel that they earned their higher wages only to have them snatched away by higher prices. And this is probably the most important reason that, according to tracking polls conducted by Morning Consult, every single leader of a Group of 7 nation is underwater, with more voters disapproving than approving of their leadership.

So who’s the winner of this unpopularity contest? Who has the least bad net approval? The answer is Biden, with Giorgia Meloni of Italy a close second. The other Group of 7 leaders are even more unpopular. And this has political consequences. The U.S. election, worryingly, looks like a toss-up, but in Britain, which must hold a general election by January, current projections say that Rishi Sunak’s extremely low approval is setting the stage for the virtual collapse of the Conservative Party.

Now, you could (and I would) say that Biden should be doing better in the polls given the economic and social fundamentals: very low unemployment, fairly low inflation and violent crime on the decline. And the United States does seem to stand out for the extent to which voters insist that the economy is bad even as they say they themselves are doing well.

But every political analysis that says the fault for Biden’s low approval lies with the president and his campaign — that he’s too old (although that narrative, after suddenly peaking, mostly faded away after his State of the Union address) or is out of touch with the concerns of “real” Americans — needs to explain why he’s doing less badly than his foreign peers.

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