In a rare convergence, America’s voters are not merely unhappy with their political leadership, but awash in fears about economic security, border security, international security and even physical security. Without a U-turn by the Biden administration, this fear will generate a wave election like those in 1994 and 2010, setting off a chain reaction that could flip the House and the Senate to Republican control in November, and ultimately the presidency in 2024.
Take the economy, so often the harbinger of election results. From late 2017 until the pandemic, a majority of Americans believed that the economy was strong, and from 2014 until the pandemic at least a plurality believed their personal economic situation was improving. Covid-19 cut sharply into that feeling of well-being; this was initially seen as temporary, though, and trillions of dollars flowed into keeping people afloat. But then near-double-digit inflation hit consumers for the first time in 40 years; 60 percent of voters now see the economy as weak and 48 percent say their financial situation is worsening, according to a Harris Poll conducted April 20-21. Many Americans under 60 have relatively little experience with anything but comparatively low fuel costs, negligible interest rates and stable prices. Virtually overnight these assumptions have been shaken. Only 35 percent approve of President Biden’s handling of inflation.
These economic blows are just one element in a cascading set of problems all hitting at the same time. It combines the nuclear anxieties of the 1950s and ’60s with the inflation threat of the ’70s, the crime wave of the ’80s and ’90s and the tensions over illegal immigration in the 2000s and beyond. This electorate is not experiencing a malaise, as President Jimmy Carter was once apocryphally said to have proclaimed, but has instead formed into a deep national fissure ready to blow like a geyser in the next election if leadership does not move to relieve the pressure.
The return of fear about crime is especially worrisome for Democrats, who spent years trying to take over Republican ground on the issue. In 1991, the homicide rate was 9.71 per hundred thousand. Mr. Biden, when he was a senator, penned the key federal bipartisan anti-crime bill widely credited then with reducing violence in America, but under criticism today by those who argue it led to inequitable rates of incarceration, particularly in communities of color. The homicide rate would decline to a low of 4.44 per 100,000 in 2014. Worries about walking the streets and riding the subway were less acute among new generations, and yet today those same streets and mass transit are once again hobbled by fear; even the head of the New York-area Metropolitan Transportation Authority argued that fear of crime and homelessness were behind a 36 percent drop in ridership between December 2021 and January 2022.
Immigration was used effectively by President Donald Trump as a wedge issue to win working class voters. According to the April Harris poll, under Mr. Biden, 59 percent of voters believe that we have “effectively” open borders and, looking back, many even support some of Mr. Trump’s immigration policies. Mr. Biden receives only 38 percent approval for his immigration policy, a troublingly low rating for a Democrat (President Barack Obama was at 29 percent approval on immigration policy before the 2010 midterm wipeout).
National security had become less salient for most Americans compared to the years of the Cold War and after 9/11. Foreign policy was barely discussed in the limited presidential debates of 2020. Today, fear of a great power conflict and nuclear weapons has emerged in ways not seen since the Cold War. With the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin, fresh ballistic missile tests, and Mr. Putin’s explicit reference to the use of nuclear weapons and “unpredictable” consequences of opposing him, fear of nuclear weapons has been thrust front and center, as a recent focus group of Americans by Times Opinion found as well. Fear of nuclear weapons now ranks second in issues that worry voters, behind the effects of inflation.
To combat the drag that fear has on the electorate — what I call a “fear index” — Mr. Biden will have to move in some big and bold ways. Faced with runaway spending in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton proposed a balanced budget, a policy still favored by 80 percent of the electorate, according to April’s Harris poll, but he did it in a way that still managed to finance entitlements like Social Security. Pushing a big, seven-year policy plan like that would mean finding budget cuts elsewhere to pay for a permanent child tax credit, rather than raising taxes, and deficit spending, which would most likely cause costs to fall on the average American through inflation. Balancing the budget would change the conversation about the economy and show Americans that Mr. Biden was serious about getting our fiscal house in order.
Continuing to let gas prices surge will hurt Democrats on the ballot in the fall; the party needs a new, tempered energy policy that includes a more gradual transition to alternative fuels and an appreciation of energy independence. In the presidential debates, Mr. Biden promised a “transition” to “renewable energy over time,” though noting he would not attempt to ban fracking. But in his first flurry of executive orders, Biden gave the public the impression he was far more aggressive in favoring climate change policies, though he has since angered activists by reversing a promise to prevent new drilling on public lands. He will need to shift to an “all of the above” energy approach and green-light the Keystone pipeline, which is currently favored by nearly 80 percent of the electorate, according to the Harris Poll.
The Biden administration is also losing in swing areas on immigration, as evidenced by the nine Senate Democrats and the House’s bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus that have expressed reservations about its plan to lift Title 42, the Trump administration’s Covid-era policy of intercepting and returning migrants without due process. The answer is to keep in place the Covid-related border restrictions and revive trying to find a real compromise with at least 10 Republican senators on immigration that would adopt tougher barrier and enforcement measures to close the border, but also open up legal immigration and a path to citizenship for at least DACA recipients.
With rising crime as an issue, the favorable rating of the Department of Justice has sunk to just 51 percent under Merrick Garland, according to the Harris Poll. Mr. Biden needs to shake up his top law-enforcement officials and back legislation that combines police reform with funding for hundreds of thousands of new community police officers, greater federal involvement in stopping violent crime syndicates and gangs, and wider discretion for judges to take violent criminals off the streets. The administration needs to consider interceding on behalf of victims in circumstances in which district attorneys are not prosecuting violent criminals to the full extent of the law, especially when they waive “enhancements” for gang-related crimes. One of our first campaign ads in 1996 established President Clinton as both against assault-weapons and for more cops and crime-fighting measures; he kept that message up during his re-election bid, and Republicans never effectively stoked fears about crime.
Finally, Mr. Biden cannot let Mr. Putin win in Ukraine, and needs to continue to send whatever weapons are necessary, including jets, to prevent such a victory. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan precipitated a decline in his administration’s approval rates. Ukraine’s loss would compound the view among some voters that he is too weak.
According to reports, Mr. Biden now says he is running for re-election in 2024. But he is facing limited enthusiasm in his own party for a second run and loses even to Mr. Trump in hypothetical matchups, according to the Harris Poll. Sticking to the high-priced Build Back Better legislation or variants of it on the basis of narrow party-line votes has not been successful.
People are afraid of being walloped financially, being injured or menaced by criminals, being in a country without strong borders or Covid protections for immigrants, and being under threat of nuclear weapons. If Mr. Biden and Democratic leaders cannot effectively address these fears, the wave election will hit them in November, and the president will then face a sobering choice of either passing the baton to another candidate in 2024 or finding the bold leadership necessary to reconcile his drive for more progressive policies with the realities of economics, politics and a more dangerous world.
Mark Penn was a pollster and adviser to President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton from 1995 to 2008. He is chairman of the Harris Poll and C.E.O. of Stagwell Inc.