The Vibes They Are a-Shiftin'
But will the country's slightly more upbeat mood last?
What a difference a month makes.
Just before President Biden headed out to the Middle East last month, the country seemed to have slipped into an abyss of permanent despair and pessimism. One prominent Democratic political adviser went so far as to declare that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) had “single-handedly doomed humanity” by torpedoing a version of President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation. In June, moreover, inflation hit highs unseen in four decades – driven in no small part by high gasoline prices at the pump.
Today, however, it’s easy to discern a sense of cautious optimism, one revealed in the sudden emergence and proliferation of "Dark Brandon” memes that portray President Biden as an all-powerful (if somewhat malevolent) figure capable of manipulating reality as he sees fit. These memes remain dumb fun, and it’s silly to take them as anything more than a symptom of what kids these days call a vibe shift: a change in underlying moods and attitudes that can only be discerned after the fact. Still, this marked swing from open and not-so-subtle speculation about Biden’s advancing age, perceived ineffectualness, and poor approval ratings to tongue-in-cheek memes celebrating the president’s Machiavellian omnicompetence verges on whiplash.
But why has the nation’s mood swung so suddenly, its vibes shifted so swiftly?
Let’s start with things mostly outside the direct control of the White House and Congress, most notably and importantly gasoline prices and inflation. Gas prices fell a fifth from their nationwide average in the middle of June, declining for over two months straight. Overall inflation leveled off in July, with the economy seeing no increase in price levels from the previous month. What’s more, global food, energy, and commodity prices that spiked after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appear to have settled back down to prewar levels. None of this means the United States has beaten inflation by any stretch of the imagination, but thanks to lower gas prices most Americans aren’t feeling as much economic pain as they did earlier this summer.
At the same time, the country has seen some concrete policy achievements – ones that grabbed public attention in positive ways. Just before President Biden jetted off to the Middle East, he and a gaggle of administration officials unveiled the first striking images from the James Webb Space Telescope. Though work on the Webb telescope began twenty years ago, it launched just last December and the release of its first images came at the exact moment America needed a jolt of national optimism.
At the end of July came the drone strike that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and wrapped up unfinished business from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. This strike simultaneously called attention to and distracted from the first anniversary of the fall of Kabul, one of the Biden administration’s worst policy failures. It also incidentally injected the Dark Brandon meme into mainstream political discourse – especially for those of us who spend far more time online than we probably should.
Finally, Congress delivered a flurry of legislative accomplishments in a brief early August window:
The CHIPS and Science Act, which among other things invests $52 billion in the American semiconductor manufacturing industry and $10 billion in regional manufacturing hubs. It also authorizes funding for NASA, the National Science Foundation, and other government agencies focused on scientific research and technological development.
The Inflation Reduction Act, which imposes a 15 percent corporate minimum tax (per U.S. obligations under a G20 agreement negotiated last year) and a one percent fee on stock buybacks as well as investing $369 billion in carbon-free energy, shoring up Obamacare, and putting a cap on prescription drug prices paid out of pocket by those insured by Medicare.
It’s important not to oversell these achievements, but they nonetheless remain fairly impressive given slim majorities in Congress that Democrats have to work with. After more than a year spent banging their heads against the proverbial wall, the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress finally accepted political reality and passed some significant laws that invest in America’s people and its future.
Much will of course depend on the implementation of this legislation – especially the commitments to environmental permitting reform Sen. Manchin rightly insisted on in return for his help on the Inflation Reduction Act. Without these reforms, investments in carbon-free energy will take too long to materialize and fail to achieve their maximum potential when they do. But the nation’s mood remains much improved over where it was as President Biden embarked on his trek to the Middle East a month ago.
Thanks in part to this vibe shift, Democrats are now much better positioned for November’s mid-term elections - though as we’ve seen much can change over the course of two months. Backlash against the Supreme Court’s decision to toss out Roe v. Wade appears to have mobilized Democrats, with Kansas voters rejecting a referendum that would have outlawed abortion. Republican candidates have also run behind President Trump’s share of the 2020 vote in special elections for House seats in Minnesota and Nebraska. Democrats have pulled even with Republicans on generic Congressional ballot polls, and Republicans have cut funding for ads in a number of critical Senate races. Even President Biden has registered a very slight uptick in his own approval ratings.
Still, the country’s mood could swing back just as quickly as it swung forward. Just in the past ten days, for instance, we’ve seen the FBI execute a search warrant on former President Trump’s residence and an assassination attempt against the author Salman Rushdie at the urging of the Iranian regime. The war in Ukraine could take a turn for the worse, the Iran nuclear deal could continue its long, slow death, and gas prices could push inflation back to the levels seen earlier this year. Any one setback could shift our national vibes back into the negative.
So what does this all mean?
For starters, these sorts of sharp mood swings and whirlwind vibe shifts are both unhealthy in and of themselves and a symptom of our underlying national malaise. We seem discontented and irritable with just about everything – not without reason in many cases, but to an unreasonable degree in almost all of them. Matters are concerning enough without pouring even more doom and gloom into our national life, much less oscillating from one emotional extreme to another in the span of a month. It saps our own sense of national self-efficacy, leaving us certain we can’t accomplish anything we set out to do.
It's uncertain just how long this particular vibe shift will last. We could find ourselves whipsawed back into excessive pessimism, so it’s best to appreciate this cautious optimism while we’ve got it and do what we can to make sure it sticks around as long as possible. In the future we could see the national mood swing we’ve experienced over the past month as a permanent shift, a turning point toward a more enduring if still fragile sense of hope. Or we could view it as ephemeral, a chimera that appeared just before we descend even further into collective derangement and mean-spiritedness.
Correctly reading and molding the tenor of our times remains a vital task for our political leaders, one that’s all the more difficult in an age of social media and smart phones. It’s easy to dismiss the “vibes theory of politics,” but nations do possess tempers, as FDR once put it, that govern their attitude to the times in which they live and they must be taken into account – not surfed like an uncontrollable wave, necessarily but channeled in constructive ways that address people’s hopes and aspirations as well as their fears and basic needs.
If our more upbeat national mood is to become something more lasting, President Biden has his work cut out for him. A good deal of this will involve avoiding unforced errors and vocally rejecting the political patent medicine offered by the cultural left. Most Americans remain normies and do not buy the pessimistic national narrative the cultural left is selling, a narrative from which mainstream Democrats have failed to dissociate themselves. Merely restating that Democrats do not support defunding the police, for instance, will not convince ordinary people who do not see Democrats willing to take the cultural left and its assumptions head on. The recent vibe shift has not made this potentially fatal problem go away, and a more forthright stand against these unrepresentative voices will be needed.
On the flip side, President Biden and Democrats generally can do more to speak directly to the concerns of ordinary Americans. So far, President Biden has only done so haphazardly and seemingly without any real plan. But the recent flurry of legislation gives them an important opportunity to connect the policies just enacted to the administration’s stated goals of rebuilding the middle class at home and reviving America’s ability to compete in the world. Take the messages Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona has offered on the Science and CHIPS Act in his re-election campaign:
President Biden should hit the road this fall and make similar connections between the investments Congress has passed and his overall vision for America’s domestic economy and our ability to compete in the world. These need not be campaign stops, but a series of visits to, say, semiconductor manufacturing facilities under construction to explain just what his policies mean for the country and its place in the world.
The nation’s recent mood swing gives President Biden and Democrats more broadly a unique opportunity to seize the center lane of American politics and offer the country greater hope for the future. It’s a chance they can’t afford waste.
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