ATLANTA — Gas prices are finally falling around the country, but few voters say the lower prices have changed their outlook on the economy, a worrying sign for President Joe Biden as he seeks to turn around his sagging approval rating before the midterm elections.
In interviews with voters in Georgia, home to a competitive Senate race that could determine control of the upper chamber, many people said that while they had noticed it cost less to fill up their gas tanks in recent days, they said that did not make up for how much money they were still spending on groceries, rent and other basic goods.
“I’m glad it’s no longer $5 a gallon,” said Stan Tucker, a 74-year-old retiree from Atlanta who voted for Biden in 2020. “But that’s not good enough. This can’t keep going on.”
Reggie Harris, 50, who also supported Biden, said it was finally costing him less than $100 to fill up his car tank, but that wasn’t making up for the fact that he felt that his family’s grocery bill kept going up each week. “It feels like the middle class can’t catch a break,” he said.
Biden’s approval rating hovers around 39 percent — one of the worst ratings of a president going into their first midterm elections in decades — with polls showing inflation and gas prices as voters’ top concerns. In a New York Times/Siena College poll conducted this month, just 10% of respondents rated the economy as good or excellent.
Although gas prices have declined for more than 30 days straight, dropping on Friday to a national average of $4.57 per gallon, inflation has continued to climb at the fastest pace in 40 years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Wednesday that the consumer price index was 9.1 percent higher in June than it was a year ago, with prices rising across key sectors of the economy.
Biden called the inflation report “out-of-date” because it did not reflect the recent decline in gas prices.
The minimal impact that voters say falling gas prices are having on their economic outlook highlights just how pressing of a challenge Democrats face as they try to hold on to their narrow majorities in the House and Senate amid looming concerns about inflation.
“People aren’t thinking, ‘Oh wow, this is all over,’” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, speaking of declining gas prices. “The Republican Party is pushing the message that the main concerns for Georgia voters should be inflation and the economy, and Democrats and Joe Biden are responsible for these problems.”
Biden has said that tamping down inflation, including lowering the price of gas, is his top priority. He has proposed continuing to tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and he has encouraged oil and gas companies to increase production. He has called on Congress to temporarily suspend the federal gas tax as well as approve a trimmed-down version of his economic agenda — neither of which currently have enough support to pass.
Some voters said that the drop in gas prices had not changed their assessment of the economy because they were not convinced that prices wouldn’t spike again given the volatility of the energy market following the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine, suggesting that voter opinions on the economy could already be hardened going into the midterms.
Shadesia Powell, 28, who voted for Biden in 2020 but said she felt underwhelmed by what he had been able to accomplish so far, said she didn’t think the lower gas prices were here to stay.
“The gas prices go down just to come back up,” said Powell, adding that she and her family would continue to limit the amount of time they spend in the car, including cutting out trips to see friends. “When we get in the car, it’s only to go from point A to point B. Nothing in between.”
In an attempt to take credit for the declining prices while also acknowledging the economic crunch that many Americans are still facing, Biden said last week that there is still “a lot of work to do” to lower prices of fuel, but that the country is “making progress.”
But that progress is too incremental in the eyes of some voters. After more than two years of a global pandemic followed by 40-year high inflation, some loyal Democrats said they were exhausted with a political climate that they believe has provided few answers to their economic concerns.
“We want someone who can do the work,” said Nick Mitchell, 33, who voted for Biden in 2020 but said he was disappointed that the president had not done more to help the middle class. “I’m decided only based on who we’re running against. For the lack of someone better, we’re going to vote for Democrats.”
Biden beat Donald Trump in Georgia in 2020 by a little over 11,000 votes — less than half a percentage point — becoming the first Democrat to carry the state in nearly 30 years. Even a slight drop in Democratic turnout could lead to losses up and down the ballot for the party this year.
But they’ll have to convince worn-out voters like Trina Brown.
Rushing from the bus stop to her job at the Veterans Affairs office, Brown, 65, said that after supporting Democrats for decades, she wasn’t going to vote in this year’s midterm elections.
“Biden ain’t doing anything to help with the cost of living,” said Brown, who used to drive to work but said she can’t afford to fill up her gas tank anymore.
“They all just talk the talk and don’t actually do anything. Look at Biden, he’s sending money overseas to Ukraine when we need it here,” she said.