NOGALES, Ariz. — In Joe Biden’s telling, the hard-won policies that he steered through Congress have already taken root. Jobs are plentiful, and inflation is cooling, he says.
Americans, he said at a fundraising event in New Mexico last week, are “beginning to realize what we’ve actually passed is having an impact.”
But not everywhere, and not in the ways the president might hope.
Biden also traveled last week to Arizona, where his 2020 upset win helped clinch victory over Donald Trump and where a repeat match next year would smooth the path to re-election. He used his second visit to the state as president to announce a popular plan to conserve 1 million acres of land near the Grand Canyon.
Yet Arizona poses a challenge for Biden that grows more daunting by the day. Voters he needs to recreate the winning coalition from 2020 have soured on his presidency. An Emerson College poll earlier this month showed Trump leading Biden in Arizona by 45% to 43%. Researchers at the University of Arizona found that as of the end of 2022, only 38% of independent voters viewed Biden in a positive light.
“If Biden is successful in 2024, it hinges on these voters,” said Christopher Weber, a professor at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy. “They’re the largest bloc in the state, and Biden isn’t polling terribly well with this group.”
The president’s troubles in Arizona mirror the dilemma he faces nationally. For all the progress Biden cites when it comes to the unemployment rate and job creation, many Americans neither see nor feel it. If anything, they believe life has been getting tougher under what the president has cheekily dubbed "Bidenomics."
Billions of dollars in highway, bridge and green energy projects are in the works, courtesy of bills passed earlier in the president’s term. For now, though Arizonans are largely driving on the same congested roads, sweating in the same 110-degree summer heat, shelling out nearly $4 for a gallon of gas and wondering when the White House’s lofty promises of economic transformation and renewal will ever materialize, interviews with 20 people across the state over the past week found.
At a Love’s service station in central Arizona, Dawn Grantham, an independent, and her husband of 47 years, Dee, were getting gas and stopped to talk with NBC News about Biden’s performance thus far.
“They should quit worrying about the college kids paying back that money and start worrying about us who are trying to work for a living with these food and gas costs,” she said, referring to Biden’s plans to help borrowers repay student loans. A station sign showed that a gallon of regular cost $3.59. At its height in the summer of 2022, gas averaged $5.39 a gallon in Arizona. So, the price has been falling but is still high enough to leave motorists feeling there’s been no respite.
“I’m on Social Security and it [inflation] is killing me,” Dee Grantham said.
Complaints about Biden centered on the economy. Biden’s boast that he wants to be the most pro-union president in history doesn’t appear to have sunk in. Davis Fowler, an instructor in Boilermakers Local 627 in Arizona, said he voted for Biden in 2020 but has not decided whether he will do so again.
“The Biden administration, you know, they’re trying to do good, trying to get rid of all the coal-fired plants, but that’s mostly our bread and butter right there,” Fowler said.
Budgets not borders
Few people mentioned the hot-button topics that often consume elected officials in Washington, namely, the border. In the gritty border town of Nogales, a stream of cars waited to cross into Mexico. Hugo Cueva, 46, who has lived his whole life there, said he’s seen no appreciable change in the way the border functions in recent years, either for better or worse.
What troubles him is the economy. “Horrible!” he said. Cueva said he voted for Biden in 2020 but is now leaning toward Trump should he become the Republican nominee. “Everything went up,” he said of prices. Nogales is part of Santa Cruz County, which broke heavily for Biden in 2020.
Buying food at a store nearby, Carlos Ayala, 43, describes himself as an independent but said he was also inclined to vote for Trump. He’s out of work and said that local employers tend to favor Mexican workers in the belief they'll accept lower pay. Trump, he said, “may talk bad to people and he may not know how to talk, but I think he was a good president. A lot of people thought that Trump was racist. He’s not. He actually created a lot of job opportunities for a lot of people.”
Jorge Maldonado, the city’s mayor, said he thought that residents were not getting the support they needed from the federal government.
He voted for Biden in 2020 but does not think he’ll do it a second time because he doesn’t “think he’s really there for the right reasons.”
Though Arizona’s unemployment rate dropped from 3.8% to 3.5% this year, the trend doesn’t tell the full story, others said. After a round of pickleball at a community center in suburban Phoenix, Neil Cooper, 44, who works in the mortgage services industry, describes what he sees when reviewing his clients' finances.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who don’t know what to do right now,” he said. “They’re stuck where they’re at. They might want to buy a new house or sell the house to make money and rent, but it’s not going to work because the rents will be too high. They can’t replace the ones they sell because the housing market is so high right now. People feel very trapped.”
Maricopa County’s eviction rates are especially high — nearly twice the national average, according to an Arizona State University analysis.
Asked his view of a possible Biden-Trump rematch in 2024, Cooper said: “Man, I hope the parties don’t go that way. I hope they both choose new candidates.”
'I wish he weren’t so old'
Some northern Arizona officials insist that Bidenomics has been paying off. Biden’s newly declared monument at the Grand Canyon will boost the local economy, said Patrice Horstman, who chairs the Board of Supervisors for Coconino County.
“We are often mentioned as a top outdoor recreation place for premier hiking, biking, climbing, river rafting,” Horstman said. “And we believe that not only will this national monument extend our outdoor recreation focus here in Coconino County, but it’s also going to enhance our tourist-based economy in the county.”
With the election more than 400 days away, Biden has ample opportunity to sell his message that conditions have brightened. It doesn’t hurt that the GOP front-runner, Trump, has staked out extreme positions that Arizona voters have rejected in recent statewide elections.
“If Biden has something going for him in the state, it’s probably — ironically — Trump,” Weber said. “If there’s another Republican nominee, the story could totally change.”
Surrounding Biden is a Democratic Party apparatus determined to beat back Trump’s return. On a recent weekend, a handful of local party leaders representing part of the Phoenix suburbs met in Valerie Harris’s home to discuss the micro-steps necessary to help Democrats up and down the ballot: recruiting precinct committee members, texting newly registered Democrats and raising funds by raffling off T-shirts.
They rattle off reasons they’re sacrificing part of a Sunday afternoon in hopes of making even incremental progress in enshrining Democratic policies, mentioning their dislike of the state Republican Party’s rightward drift. But stopping Trump’s comeback is no small motivator.
“He has rallied this community nationwide,” said Deborah Howard, a party activist attending the meeting. “There are millions of us sitting at tables doing this work, not because we have nothing else to do with our lives. I keep hoping I’ll have a hobby of matching the perfect sunset with the perfect cocktail. That would be great. But that’s not where we are right now.”
A few recognize Biden may not be the most inspirational figure to lead a party with a long history of charismatic candidates at the top of the ticket, including John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Biden is 80 years old, and any slip he makes while giving a speech — or walking up a set of stairs — gets outsize attention.
“Personally, I wish he weren’t so old,” said Teri Raml, vice-chair of the group. “And I wish there was someone standing right beside him that we could get behind. But I’m so in favor of the team that he’s amassed. That’s what really matters. Those are the people doing the heavy lifting.”
Others aren’t as forgiving. Mark Merrill, a Democrat who was also playing pickleball at the suburban recreation center, questions whether Biden is up for the job.
“I’m 80,” Merrill said standing near the court of the tennis-style game that's a favorite of retirees. “He’s the same age I am. I wouldn’t want to be there. I don’t think I could. There are times when I couldn’t make decisions quickly.”
He had a thought about Biden’s son Hunter, whose plea deal on tax and gun charges has fallen apart. “A pain in the ass,” he said of the younger Biden.
“I feel bad for him. He’s just a puppet. No one should be a puppet at 80 years old. They should be out playing pickleball and having a good time and enjoying their grandchildren,” said Kathleen Kretschmar, 59, a Republican, outside the recreation center.
Another 80-year-old pickleball player, Democrat Richard Nadler, said that if the choice in 2024 is Biden or Trump, he won’t vote for either. He mentions food prices.
“You go to the supermarket,” he said. “I was paying $3.48 for Lactaid milk. It’s $4.98 now. It’s crazy.”
Democrats won’t lose Arizona without a fight. Activists hope to mobilize a growing pool of young, first-time voters.
Maria Teresa Kumar, co-founder of Voto Latino, said that in 2020, her group registered and turned out 32,000 voters in Arizona. (Biden won the state by about 10,000 votes, a victory that withstood Trump’s post-election effort to overturn the result). She expects that when the 2024 election rolls around, more than 160,000 Latinos will have come of age and be eligible to vote, creating a ripe target for Democratic canvassers.
But, she added, the president’s team needs to make sure the word gets out about what they’ve accomplished. She said that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have been “at the helm of perhaps the most impactful pieces of stimulus and policy that we’ll see in our lifetime.”
So far, that message doesn’t seem to have filtered down to the pickleball courts, gas stations and supermarket aisles of this crucial battleground state.
Biden’s agenda, Kumar said, is one of “moving the country forward and investing in the United States that we haven’t seen in a long time. They need to own it. They need to talk about it. Because most of us won’t feel the benefits for another eight years.”