Steven Roberts: The complacency trap

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 28, 2024

By Steven Roberts

On Election Day 2016, staffers at Hillary Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters were popping champagne corks and celebrating what they assumed would be her victory over Donald Trump. The next day, after her narrow defeat was finalized, one of her key strategists, a former student of mine, called me in tears.

“What went wrong?” he kept asking. “All of our data showed us we were going to win easily.”

One answer was a raging case of complacency. There had been plenty of warning signs. Other former students told me that they had been alerting headquarters, with increasing alarm: Her crowds are shrinking! The energy is dwindling! 

Don’t worry, they were told, we’re ahead by 4 points. Just book smaller arenas so fewer empty seats show up on TV.

I recalled this story while reading about the latest New York Times/Siena poll, which shows Joe Biden trailing Trump in five of the six swing states, often by sizable margins. 

“President Biden doesn’t believe his bad poll numbers, and neither do many of his closest advisers,” reports Axios. “In public and private, Biden is telling anyone who will listen that he’s gaining ground — and is probably up — on Donald Trump.” 

This is a fantasy, a disturbing echo of the self-delusion that tanked Clinton’s campaign eight years ago. Any Democrat who doesn’t see that is blindly avoiding reality.

There are many factors working against Biden — his age, the border, Gaza — but his core problem is the economy in general and inflation in particular. No issue is more damaging in politics because it directly affects every family every day.

“The American political landscape in 2024 seems like a very simple story that people continue to overcomplicate,” writes Jonathan Chait in New York magazine. “There was a large, global surge in prices in 2021 and 2022 as the economy restarted following the COVID-19 pandemic. That inflation surge left Joe Biden, like leaders in almost every major democracy, deeply unpopular. Biden, like his global peers, has yet to recover.”

Moreover, Biden’s persistent optimism about a robust recovery clashes badly with the lived experience of many voters. David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s political adviser, said on CNN that it’s “absolutely true” that America has bounced back exceptionally well from the global economic slump caused by COVID.

“But that’s not the way people are experiencing the economy,” Axelrod argued. “They are experiencing it through the lens of the cost of living. He is a man who’s built his career on empathy, (so) why not lead with the empathy?” Biden is “making a terrible mistake,” added the Democratic strategist. “If he doesn’t win this race, it may not be Donald Trump that beats him, it may be his own pride.”

In the latest Morning Consult survey, 26% of voters rated the economy as good or excellent while 74% called it fair or poor. And that gloomy assessment centers on two words: gas and groceries. 

In 2020, the average fuel price was $2.17 a gallon, so if your vehicle held 16 gallons, a fill-up cost $34.72. Today gas is priced at $3.62 a gallon and replenishing the same vehicle costs $57.92 — a difference of $23.20. Food prices in general rose 25% from 2019 to 2023, but the website Food and Wine estimates that bills at fast-food outlets jumped almost 30%.

This data fits into a larger framework. There are only two slogans in American politics: “You never had it so good” and “It’s time for a change.” All incumbents have to run on the first platform, and when people were happy, first-term presidents like Obama and Ronald Reagan have cruised to reelection. But persistent inflation, more than any other factor, is souring the national mood, turning 2024 into a “change” election, not a “stay the course” year. And it is Trump — not Biden — who embodies change for many voters.   

In the Morning Consult poll, 25% of voters say the economy will get better if Biden wins, and 48% think it will get worse. By contrast, 45% believe the economy will improve if Trump wins, and 36% think it will decline. As polling analyst Ron Faucheux puts it, these results are a “killer for Democrats.” Adds the Times, “voters in battleground states remain particularly anxious, unsettled and itching for change.”

The election is still six months away. Trump, like Biden, has huge flaws. This election, like the last two, will probably be extremely close. But Democrats must remember the lesson of 2016. Complacency can be a deadly trap.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at