The Biden Administration's Five Stages of Grief | Opinion

There are five stages of grief, according to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, beginning with denial and ending with acceptance. The Biden administration must have learned from that sequence, since it regularly trots out five successive explanations for its mounting policy failures. Like Kübler-Ross, the administration begins with denial.

Here are the Biden administration's five stages:

  1. It's not really a problem. You just think it is.
  2. It's only a problem for some people, especially rich people. It doesn't affect ordinary folks.
  3. It's only a temporary problem. Although folks may be feeling some pain right now, it will go away soon, thanks to our policies.
  4. The problem is lasting a little longer than expected, but none of the experts anticipated that. The president himself is working hard to fix everything.
  5. It's not our fault, and there's nothing we can do to fix the problem. Who is to blame? (In 2021, it was Trump; in 2022, it is Putin.)

Voters aren't buying it. They elect presidents to solve problems, and they hold them responsible when they fail. Polls show only about one-fifth of the country thinks we are "on the right track," a catastrophic number for the party in power. They don't blame Republicans, either, because Democrats control the White House, Senate and the House of Representatives. They point directly at Biden and his flailing party.

Take inflation. The former administration spokesperson, Jen Psaki, initially denied rising prices were a problem. When that became laughable, the administration reframed the problem as a temporary one. Anyway, the Biden folks said it mostly affected the rich. But ordinary folks knew better. They could feel the pinch every time they filled up their truck or bought groceries. They could see it on huge signs at every service station.

Inflation inflicts pain—very visibly—on everyone, and it does so in two ways. First, it creates a pervasive sense of uncertainty and instability. That disruption unsettles everyone and impedes long-term planning, such as expanding a business, buying a house or saving for retirement. Second, rising prices often lead to declining real incomes. That's exactly what has happened this time, despite the tight labor market and low unemployment rate. Sluggish or falling real incomes represent a "kitchen-table problem," and they are at least as troublesome as inflation itself. Both will hurt Democrats in November.

There's no way for the administration to mask this pain, pretend it will fade away quickly or claim it has policies to fix it. It can't escape the blame, either. The administration has tried all those P.R. strategies thus far, without success.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the recent mass shootings from the White House on June 02, 2022 in Washington, D.C. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The administration has tried a slightly different spin with illegal immigration. It has consistently tried to mask the problem with deceptive language. The Biden team never calls it "illegal immigration" and is even edging away from the popular circumlocution, "undocumented," since it has become so unpopular. The administration's new preferred term is "irregular immigration." Doesn't that feel better?

Besides this fog of false language, the administration initially claimed the rising tide of "irregular" border crossings was only temporary—and besides, not much worse than it was in previous years. Both claims proved untrue. There was no way to blame Trump, either, since he stanched the flow with his border wall construction and highly effective "Remain In Mexico" policy. Biden dismantled those, to the cheers of his party's progressives, and put nothing in their place.

It is now clear that the influx of illegal immigrants has reached record levels, and that the administration has no solutions. Its current strategy seems to be "don't look." The Biden team fears, rightly, that sending the president or vice president to the border would only draw more coverage to the surge of drugs, gangs and immigrants entering the United States illegally. That's why Kamala Harris made only one brief visit to the border, posing for photographs a thousand miles away from the epicenter of illegal crossings. That's why President Biden dares not go himself. In fact, he has never been to the U.S.-Mexico border—not as president, vice president or even senator.

On issue after issue, the Biden administration stumbles down the same rocky path. It begins by denying the problem. Once it is forced to admit the problem, it claims "it only affects a few people" and is temporary. As the problem lingers, the administration claims that "even the experts were surprised" and "the president is working on it." Their grand finale is that "it's not our fault."

Voters aren't buying it. That's the consistent message from poll after poll, covering all demographic groups. If Biden and the Democrats keep trudging down this path, they would do well to learn a lot more about Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics and Security. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.