In 1931, smack dab at the beginning of the Great Depression (although, when was any depression “great”?), it was a big hit: “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” Today, 90 years later, what with inflation, the 10 cents of yesteryear has a purchasing power of $1.82, so the song in 2021 would be “Brother Could You Spare a Buck 82?” It doesn’t have the same pizazz, does it?
John D. Rockefeller used to throw dimes at the crowds he encountered. Rockefeller was the rich guy of his generation, sort of like Donald Trump, except that Rockefeller was successful in business and Trump was a failure in business but was a success in politics, rising to president once ... or twice, if you believe him. As president, in 2017, Donald Trump tossed paper towels at his audience while delivering aid to hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico. He was always that sensitive.
He has been replaced in the White House by Joe Biden, but Biden faces a threat that is known as a saboteur of more than one chief executive: inflation. Rising consumer prices are death to a presidency. Voters don’t want to hear about supply chains; they don’t even know what a supply chain is, no matter how many times TV news broadcasts the same jammed ships stuck full of cargo containers coming from China. They don’t want to hear about the tragic pandemic that also did lasting harm to the world economy and is causing prices to rise to the highest rates in 30 years. They do want someone to blame for the cost of cars, and the gas that powers them, as they head to the grocery store and to shop for the Christmas gifts they can’t afford, even online, even misdelivered.
No matter how many jobs the new infrastructure legislation creates, inflation is a politician’s nightmare — that is, for the one who is in office. For the one who is running against the incumbent, it’s a dream come true. Joe Biden becomes his or her scapegoat. It’s no matter that he’s less than a year into office and he has three years to go, the heart of the American electorate is located wherever the wallet is.
And the spiral of inflation only gets more intense. From a government point of view, acts by Congress or congressional inaction can only make the economy more, uh, depressing. Let’s suppose the chicken- playing members of the House and Senate miscalculate, or the administration does, and doesn’t pass a raise to the debt ceiling. That will require the United States of America to become a deadbeat in that it is forced to default on its bills. That’ll cause inflation to get worse at the same time that production lags because of market forces. Put another way, a supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
No matter who is at fault, the president gets the blame. The president is Joe Biden. Even if he stole the election in the grandest of grand larcenies — as Trump absurdly alleged — he’s still the president and will get the blame.
So, Donald Trump can take his cheap shots as the blamer, and Biden will be the blamee. At least if it’s a repeat of the 2020 campaign in 2024. Anyone who holds out hope that Trump’s legal problems will overwhelm him, including the charges of direct involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, should not dream that he will face legal accountability. He won’t. He can demagogue away any charge, no matter how much evidence exists. Besides, inflation as an issue trumps even treason.
Joe Biden knows, or he should know, that the economy is deadly as a campaign issue, particularly when it comes to eating a rising paycheck. And even if they recede or level off, he does not get credit for it. Joe Biden is caught up in that reality battle where the dime store is replaced by the dollar store. It’s made for Donald Trump, whose claim to success is inflating or twisting reality.
Bob Franken is an Emmy Award-winning reporter who covered Washington for more than 20 years with CNN.