The Buck Stops There

President Biden has a bad habit of deflecting blame and shifting responsibility, something which may come back to haunt his party in November.

“The buck stops here.” This adage, meant to claim ultimate responsibility and declaim ‘passing the buck’, was a fixture of the Harry Truman White House. The President had it emblazoned on a desk sign, putting himself squarely on the top of the decision-making hierarchy and thus taking credit – and blame – for the state of nation at home and abroad. This attitude has been a model for the office ever since, for good and ill. It has (less often than I would like) led to Presidents taking responsibility for the bad choices of their administrations, but it has also helped along a massive expansion of the power of the President to make decrees from the Oval Office. When the two sides of the coin – making executive decisions and claiming responsibility for them – are both present, things can be balanced. When that coin is weighted heavily in the direction of making choices but denying responsibility for them, political disaster tends to ensue. In bad times for the country, that faulty balance becomes even more noticeable, as rhetoric and reality clash. In the current administration, this issue is not just noticeable, but is a siren blaring at full volume.

Joe Biden’s tenure in the White House has been replete with national and international crises, from the withdrawal debacle in Afghanistan to massive inflation, record-high gas prices, and a hot war on the European continent. The administration has dealt with some bad luck, but many of the problems they face were at least partially – if not entirely – their own doing. Unlike Harry Truman, however, Biden has seemingly embraced a motto of “the buck stops there,” constantly shifting blame, avoiding responsibility, and making excuses. This approach has grown these problems into serious political liabilities for the administration, exacerbating the perception that they are out of touch with the reality of American life.

This blame-shifting and reality-denial is most prevalent on the issue of inflation, which began to rear its ugly head shortly after the passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. The White House sold this bill as necessary to “change the course of the pandemic and deliver immediate and direct relief to families and workers impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.” This spending, passed on a party-line vote, came hot on the heels of a $900 billion bipartisan relief package passed just weeks earlier. Economic experts on both right and left cautioned against this plan, saying that it was “too expensive, too inflationary, too unnecessary, and too wasteful.” At the time of its passage in March 2021, inflation was a paltry 2.6%, but as the chart below shows, it began its inexorable rise the following month. At the time of writing, inflation has reached a staggering 9.1%, the highest it has been in 40 years. All of this was predictable (and predicted) at the time, but that has not stopped the administration from distorting the reality and desperately attempting to avoid blame.

Chart of monthly inflation (year-over-year) from Biden’s inauguration in January 2021 to today.

At first, the administration, led by Biden himself, labeled inflation as “transitory” and an expected after-effect of the pandemic, even going so far as to claim that his American Rescue Plan would “take the pressure off of inflation.” Since then, he has blamed ‘Big Meat’ and other large companies for supposedly causing inflation by “raising prices while generating record profits during the pandemic,” something that is totally untrue. Prices are not arbitrarily set by some corporate fat cat sitting behind a big mahogany desk, throwing darts at a board with numbers; they are complex signals that include all of the information we have about a product or service, from its component costs, to its delivery costs, to the prospects of future supply or demand shifts.

A particularly egregious form of this blame-shifting comes with respect to energy prices, one of the main factors driving inflation. As I have written before, a good portion of the inflation in gas and other forms of energy is directly related to government policy. Still, the President recently blamed gas stations for high fuel prices, claiming in the tweet below that they were run by large companies (most are small businesses) and that they set prices at the pump (most gas stations barely break even on fuel). When asked for clarification, the White House declined to alter this blatantly incorrect statement and doubled down on blaming producers for inflation.

The Biden team found another scapegoat for inflation early this year, when Russia invaded Ukraine as part of a scheme to reconstitute its territorial empire under the aegis of Vladimir Putin. The administration rolled out the “Putin’s price hike” talking point quickly, blaming all sorts of inflation in the US on the war in Europe. The invasion, and subsequent sanctions regime, did increase inflation in certain sectors, namely fuel. But the effect was only a small part of the pre-existing inflation caused by government action here at home, which can be seen easily in the inflation chart above (the invasion began in late February 2022). This did not stop the White House from relying on this bogus talking point to place blame for its domestic problems on an unpopular foreign foe. As much as I despise Vladimir Putin, the Russian government, and the unprovoked attack on Ukraine, it is very clear that our inflationary woes are not stemming from those sources. Biden’s own Federal Reserve Chair, Jerome Powell, agrees.

The obfuscation, misdirection, and scapegoating has continued through July, with the Biden administration claiming just this morning that the 9.1% inflation figure released by their own statisticians was wrong and “out-of-date,” as some energy prices have fallen (other prices rose even more, leading to the overall increase). This constant effort at confusion and buck-passing only looks worse when one realizes that the Biden team has no real plan to combat inflation, instead relying only on the Federal Reserve while still pushing massive government spending – the thing that got us into this quandary in the first place.

Biden has not only deflected about inflation; his response to the botched Afghanistan withdrawal effort was just as bad. After forcing a withdrawal that was unnecessary and poorly-executed, leading to the deaths of 13 Americans and countless Afghans, the President refused to take any responsibility. Upon being asked about the horrific images of Afghans falling to their deaths from the wheel wells of American Air Force planes, Biden snapped back “That was four days ago, five days ago!” He also blamed the Afghan military for not fighting enough, ignoring his own decision to remove the American technical support which was critical for the army’s operations. After the publication of a report from the Defense Department which criticized the administration’s planning and execution of the withdrawal, the President summarily rejected its findings, shifting blame to the military itself. This response to reasonable questions about such a total debacle was a turning point in the President’s approval ratings, with his unfavorability passing his favorability during the Afghan crisis. It has not recovered.

The trend has only continued in a negative direction for President Biden since then, largely due to his approach to the problems outlined above. It has been accelerated by the administration’s misdirection and buck-passing, actions which have perturbed the American public and reinforced a perception that the President and his party are out of touch with regular Americans and their daily concerns. There is a midterm election this November, one in which the Democrats are trying to hold on to their tenuous grasp on both houses of Congress. Sitting Presidents usually face serious headwinds in their midterm elections, as the party out of power only has to run against the leader, while the party in power must defend the state of the country. When the state of the country is so unavoidably bad, those headwinds become gale-force. Instead of putting his head down, being humble, and accepting reasonable criticism in order to push for positive solutions, Biden and his team are denying reality, blaming anyone but themselves, and trying to convince the American public not to believe their ‘lying eyes’. For some reason, I don’t think the slogan “the buck stops there” will be very convincing to the electorate in November.

2 thoughts on “The Buck Stops There

  1. The comment about gas stations and their role in this situation was wrong in so many ways. As you point out, most are family business’. And as you infer, it’s not the fuel that helps their margins, but the traffic they get when customers fuel themselves up coffee, doughnuts and the sundries (that are priced high).

    But what makes no sense is that the image of these gas stations in the voting public’s eye is not “Big Oil”, but indeed their neighbors and friends that support the local little league teams! So politically it makes no sense.

    A very costly political mistake.

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