Tom with the BTRTN September 2022 Month in Review.
We’ll never know if the Biden Administration finally might have cracked
the code on messaging in the post-Labor Day campaign push. Instead, the month’s news cycle was dominated
by a whirlwind of events that upended Biden’s efforts to build on August's enormous accomplishments. Finally, Biden,
his surrogates and Democratic candidates across the land had a strong story to
tell, if only they could have grabbed a teeny segment of the front page, the
nightly news and above the fold. But
it was not to be.
The dominating events of the month were, instead, the deaths of Mikhail Gorbachev and Queen Elizabeth II; the remarkably successful Ukraine pushback of Russian troops, and the dangerous aftermath of that thrust; the ongoing legal troubles of Donald Trump, which hit the judicial version of DEFCON 2; and Hurricane Ian, which laid waste to much of the south Florida Gulf Coast and parts of coastal South Carolina. Elizabeth was laid to rest; Trump and Putin, in pursuit of their quests to destroy world order as we know it, dug what might be their own political graves; and Ian is the latest reminder of our collective failure to avoid the worst of climate change, which may prove to be the death knell of our planet. A sobering month, indeed.All of these events are linked by history in more ways than can be enumerated in one writing, yet we can touch on just a few of the most important ones. Queen Elizabeth II was, of course, Britain’s longest reigning monarch, surpassing the run of her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria. It was under Victoria that England gave birth to the Industrial Revolution, which fueled Britain’s 18th century transformation into an imperial power through its dominance of global shipping and thus the world economy. “Fueled” is the correct term, because the large scale burning of fossil fuels, including coal and oil, that enabled the Industrial Revolution and all that followed globally, resulted in massive increases in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. The intensity of today’s storms, including Ian, and countless other “natural” global disasters, owe their roots to the Industrial Revolution. History, if we survive to see it written, will ultimately view Elizabeth’s reign as, in essence, the teardown of much of what was built under Victoria, the dismantling of the British Empire and the long overdue, desperate efforts now underway to lessen Britain’s energy dependence on fossil fuels.
As an aside, it is no stretch to ponder how and whether the British monarchy will survive her loss, as the crown’s power, and thus relevance, has been slipping for centuries now. Elizabeth’s power derived from her graceful adherence to apolitical elements of the throne that she not only advanced but embodied: her unquestioned dedication to the British people, her personal mystique, the stability, comfort and security that her long reign provided. These cannot be easily replicated by Charles, however noble his intentions.
If anything good is to come from Putin’s Ukraine Folly, it may come in the form of accelerating the conversion from fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy. Putin’s economic model is almost entirely built on Russian oil, and the war has thrown the energy markets into chaos. The short-term Western efforts to secure badly needed oil and lower gas prices represent the natural instincts of politicians in the midst of a crisis, but the longer term effect – not too long, we hope -- will surely be to get off the drug as quickly as possible, and end the long and deadly era of fossil fuel dominance that the Brits began under Victoria.
Not much else is good about any of the Ukraine business, which traces another arc of history. The British monarchy survives to this day, but Putin descends from the other outcome, the abrupt dismantling of Tsarist Russia in 1917. Putin is attempting, essentially, to de-modernize Russia and return to the superpower days of the Soviet Union, a rather pathetic and ill-advised vision, to say the least. The long sad saga of Soviet oppression (and far worse) under Stalin and his thuggish successors was finally broken by the enlightened Gorbachev, who understood that Communism was a failure, democracy was a goal, and the Cold War had to end. Gorbachev survived an attempted coup by the hardliners and lived on to effect massive change, dismantling the Soviet Union and freeing Soviet Union and Soviet bloc countries, but he could not prevent another hardliner from ultimately rising to power in the face of the fits and starts of the epic transformation he began. That was the KGB bureaucrat, Vladimir Putin
Putin’s war on Ukraine is hardly the move of a chess player; it does not even rise to the level of checkers. Chalk it up to insanely bad intelligence, referring not only to Russia’s incredibly poor assessment of Ukraine’s fighting capability and reunified Western resolve, but also to the grey matter floating around in Putin’s head. Ukraine not only successfully defended Kyiv and repelled the re-grouped Russian advances in the east, but has now taken back territory that Russia had seized, and are pushing the demoralized Russian troops back to the border. Putin has been forced to do the unthinkable – initiate a nationwide draft and talk openly about using nuclear weapons to defend the Mother Country. This has sharply raised the temperature of the Russian citizenry, causing widespread protests and a quick exit by thousands who want to avoid the call-up. Putin has simply never looked weaker, or more desperate, and now his every move risks his undoing, via either a coup (by the military) or a revolt (by the citizenry).
The latest was to force a phony referendum on four Ukraine provinces, as a pretext for annexation, an old play in the well-worn land grab textbook. This qualifies as yet another uninspired, desperate move. Putin deserves some chutzpah points for declaring sovereignty in a territory from which his army is beating a hasty retreat; Ukraine has just taken the key city of Lyman in the Donetsk Province, one of the four. The exclamation point was that the first move by the Russian Army after the annexations was to bomb a convoy of Ukrainians who were fleeing Russian rule. Having been denied the right to vote on their fate, they instead were voting with their feet, and were bombed by their supposed leader en route, an act that qualifies as yet another war crime.
Where does Trump and his legal turmoil fit into this broad sweep of history? Trump never said much about the Queen, although if he has any grasp of U.S. history (a tenuous proposition, to be sure), he would probably view her simply as a descendent of the King that lost America. (He might have envied the pageantry though.) Putting all that aside, Trump’s preference for world leaders has always been for the strongmen, the despots, the dictators, and he reveres none more so than Putin, the embodiment of Trump’s simplistic notions of a manly, powerful leader. Who can forget Trump in Helsinki, side-by-side with Putin (and clearly the junior member of the twosome), fawning over him and, more importantly, siding with him over Trump’s own intelligence agencies on whether Russia interfered with the 2016 election. Recall he did not just defend Putin, but was enraptured in full bromance mode by the force of Putin’s words: “I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today." Who says stuff like that?
Helsinki was one of many disastrous moments in the four years of Trump’s presidency, but his mark in the arc of history will be that of the first U.S. president to attempt to subvert democracy by attempting, absent a shred of credible evidence, to overturn the results of the 2020 election, which he lost handily to Joe Biden. He may be taken down legally for this alone – the state of Georgia is hot on his trail, the House January 6 committee has uncovered troves of evidence, and the Justice Department investigation continues to ramp up (they recently issued 40 subpoenas in connection with the investigation). Or, a la Al Capone, he might be taken down via other legal entanglements, notably the Mar-a-Lago document scandal and/or New York State’s investigation into his sordid business practices.
Trump’s luck may indeed be running out. He won an unexpected victory in getting one of his recently appointed federal judges to side with him on the appointment of the Special Master to review all the documents that the FBI discovered were in Trump’s possession; this appeared to be a classic delay tactic. But this ruling was (in part) quickly countermanded by a three-person appeals court panel (including two judges appointed by Trump) that allowed the most sensitive documents to be excluded from the review, giving the green light to the DOJ investigation to proceed apace. Not only that, but the Special Master, Judge Raymond Dearie, who was recommended by Trump’s own lawyers, has turned the tables on Trump in demanding proof of Trump’s allegations that the FBI planted documents at Mar-a-Lago, and in general has been hostile to Trump’s legal claims.
As for Biden, perhaps the most important news of the month was economic, and, as usual, it was contradictory. The month started with a rather excellent jobs report, with the creation of yet another 350,000 jobs. But this positive news was negated a week later by an adverse inflation report which seemed to fly in the face of rapidly falling gas prices. The 8.3% inflation rate instead reflected a lack of downward progress on the prices of other goods and services. Shortly thereafter, Biden’s favorite daily sound-bite, that “gas prices had fallen for 98 consecutive days” had to be retired, for on the 99th day, they rose again.
Biden’s role in history will forever be linked with his two immediate predecessors, Barack Obama, for whom he served eight years as Vice President, and Donald Trump. He has worked diligently for his place in this historical chain, fighting to preserve the democracy that was established when the United States was founded by defeating the England of Queen Elizabeth’s great-great-great-grandfather, King George III; uniting the allies against the despotism of Vladimir Putin; and signing, in August, the most expansive legislation ever to fight climate change.
These “overshadowing” issues of the month may have swamped Biden’s messaging, but they have all worked in his favor. His comments and demeanor regarding the deaths of the Queen and Gorbachev were pitch perfect, and gave him an opportunity to display the dignity and gravitas he brings to the role. Putin’s and Trump’s failures only serve to highlight Biden’s strength of character, his championing of democracy, and his savvy as a world leader. Ian cannot help but underline the timeliness of his efforts to fight climate change.
He also authorized disaster relief for Florida to help heal the ravages of Ian. Florida is of course the home of both Trump and Governor Ron DeSantis; one or the other is likely to be Biden’s opponent in 2024. That is, if he runs. Also lost in the whirl of events of last month was Biden’s announcement that he will decide his own future after the midterms.
The data show incremental improvement for Biden and the Democrats in September. Biden’s approval rating is now at 42%, and was at 43% for the second half of September. His approval rating on how he is handling key issues is also up marginally across the board. The generic ballot now favors the Democrats by one point. And the “Bidenometer,” our aggregate record of economic performance, inched upwards from 18 to 24 (more on the Bidenometer below).
All of this is progress, if at an agonizing pace. For both 2022 and 2024, these numbers need to be higher and, for 2022, time is winding down.
The Bidenometer is a BTRTN proprietary economic measure that was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.
The Bidenometer measure is comprised of five indicative data points: the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP. The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.
The +18 for August, 2022 means that, on average, the five measures are 18% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below). With a Bidenometer of +24, the economy is performing slightly better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office. Unemployment is much lower, consumer confidence is higher, and GDP is stronger. On the flip side, gas prices have soared (as has overall inflation, of which gas prices are a primary component) and the Dow is down.
Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, you can see from the chart below that under Clinton the measure ended at +55. It declined from +55 to only +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery. Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it. Now we have seen it move slightly upward to +24 under Biden.
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Notes on methodology:
BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters. The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.
For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.
The Bidenometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Biden Inaugural on January 20, 2021, on an average percentage change basis. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump left office. The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.