It was February of 1992 and President George H. W. Bush, while out campaigning for reelection, gave a speech to the National Grocers Association. What could possibly go wrong? It was a non-event, evidenced by the fact that only one pool reporter was present, Gregg McDonald of the Houston Chronicle. Before Bush gave the speech, he toured the new grocer technology, including a state-of-the-art scanner that could weigh produce and read damaged bar codes. In his report, McDonald noted that the president had a “look of wonder” on his face as he admired the new technology. But McDonald didn’t bother to mention it in the story he filed the next day. It was that inconsequential.
That didn’t stop New York Times reporter Andrew Rosenthal from taking liberties with the pool report, penning a front-page story that painted the president as out of touch with ordinary Americans, noting that scanning technology had been in grocery stores since the mid-1970s. It didn’t help that Bush was born to a wealthy family, went to Yale, and made a fortune in the West Texas oil patch before running for Congress. The headline of Rosenthal’s story: “Bush Encounters the Supermarket, Amazed.” Many news outlets ran with the story, and a scant few refuted it. But it was too little, too late for Bush: the myth stuck.
Flash forward 21 years, and once again a president is facing criticism for being out of touch, only this time it’s true. As White House spokespeople—and President Joe Biden himself—continue to tell the American people the economy is just fine, working-class families are sharing a very different experience. Nowhere is the economic pain felt more profoundly than in the rising cost of automobiles, the gas that powers them, and groceries.
Take Ryan Holdsworth, a 35-year-old grocery store worker from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He told the Associated Press back in mid-May that he plans to keep his nine-year-old Chevy Cruze for at least four more years, for one reason: “You’re not going to get one for a price you can afford.”
Millions of Americans are experiencing pain like Holdsworth’s. We’re keeping cars longer than we’ve ever kept them. Indeed, the average age of passenger vehicles in America hit a record-high 12.5 years this year, Yahoo Finance reported in mid-May. The two contributing factors are rising prices and rising interest rates. Since 2020, the average price of a new vehicle has risen 24 percent to a whopping $48,000, according to Edmunds.com. Interest rates on new cars have ballooned as well, up to 7 percent. It wasn’t long ago that car dealerships and automakers were pushing low-interest rates—or no interest at all.
The combination of runaway costs and high interest rates has been catastrophic for ordinary Americans, as the average car payment surged to nearly $730 per month, with the length of those loans extended to a record-setting 68 months—a commitment surpassed only by a new home purchase.
The news isn’t much better on the used-car front, with prices up 40 percent over the same time to nearly $29,000. With average interest rates at nearly 13 percent, the average monthly payment for a used car is pushing $560 a month.
The vast majority of cars being sold in America, it’s worth noting, are not new cars, but old ones. In 2022, fewer than 14 million new vehicles were sold, while used cars racked up 36.2 million units sold. There are currently 284 million cars on the road with a record 122 million over the age of 12. Americans aren’t driving such old vehicles because we want to or because we like it. We’re driving them longer because we can’t afford not to.
How bad is the auto payment pain across America? A Washington Post story on August 30 reported that more Americans are falling behind on their car loans than at any time in the past decade. Which makes millions of Americans wonder to themselves, “does anyone on Team Biden read their own hometown paper?”
Adding to the car payment pressure on working-class Americans are rising gas prices. In July 2020, gas was a mere $2.27 a gallon. In July of 2023, the average was $3.71, a whopping 63 percent increase. Yet at no time has President Biden called for policies with a proven track record of lowering prices at the pump: more drilling for oil, and building more pipelines to move it.
Indeed, during all this time, the Biden administration’s focus has been on using the Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions policy to force car companies to make electric vehicles Americans can’t afford—and don’t want. Ford Motor Company recently announced it was projected to lose $4.5 billion from electric cars this year, up from a previous loss of $3 billion.
Talk about being out of touch with ordinary Americans.
On the grocery front, things look even bleaker. A pound of ground beef averaged $3.82 a pound in 2019: that same pound of beef averaged $4.96 this year, a 30 percent increase. A gallon of milk in March 2019 was $2.94, and by 2023 it had spiked to $4.10, a whopping 39 percent. Products from eggs to cheese and from cereal to soda have seen significant spikes in prices as well since 2019.
When President Biden and his people talk up the economy in speeches and on interviews, we Americans watch in sheer dismay, wondering whether any of them have been to a car dealership in the past few years to buy a new or used car. Do any of them have car payments? Have they been at a gas pump recently to fuel up their cars? Or a Kroger or Walmart in the past three years to buy groceries? And are any of Biden’s people reading the polls? A mere 36 percent of Americans approve of the president’s handling of the economy, and no more than 33 percent have called the economy good since 2021.
In that same Washington Post article from late August, the chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, Mark Zandi, summed up the economic struggles of ordinary Americans, especially lower-income workers: “The increase in delinquencies and defaults is symptomatic of the tough decisions that [U.S.] households are having to make right now—whether to pay their credit card bills, their rent or buy groceries.”
What Biden and his spokespeople don’t understand is that Americans have been paying more for less for too many years, and they’re hurting.
Back in 1992, the New York Times and other media outlets created the appearance that President Bush was out of touch with ordinary Americans, and that story may have cost him the election. The crew in the White House today aren’t just out of touch with the lives of working-class America; they’re completely oblivious.
One thing is certain: autos, gas and groceries will be on the ballot in 2024. And the president and his entourage don’t seem to know. Or care.
Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.