Split screen: Washington descends into chaos as economic anxiety rises on Main Street

In Washington, President Joe Biden is facing an impeachment inquiry by his foes and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy a threat from his own ranks.

Meanwhile, back home, many Americans sitting around kitchen tables are struggling with their own survival fears about managing the cost of groceries and the burden of household debt.

A split screen has sharpened between spiraling political showdowns in D.C. and overwhelming economic anxiety across the country, a public mood explored in an exclusive new poll sponsored by USA TODAY and Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School.

The repercussions of that disconnect are rippling through Washington and down Main Street. A partial government shutdown at the end of the month is now more likely than not, a failure of the most basic task of those in charge: Keep things up and running.

A shutdown not only would furlough millions of federal employees, close down agencies many Americans rely on and stress an economy that already has other problems; it also could sap confidence across the country in the ability of the nation’s leaders to deal with or even recognize citizens’ driving concerns.

Pressure from the hard-right Freedom Caucus prompted McCarthy to take a step Tuesday he had decried just weeks earlier − opening an impeachment inquiry without first holding a House vote − in the hopes of persuading his troops to approve at least short-term funding for the government.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. McCarthy says he's directing a House committee to open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. McCarthy says he’s directing a House committee to open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.

A maneuver that is not, by the way, guaranteed to work.

How many ways can you say ‘bad’?

White House officials argue that Biden has focused on boosting workers and expanding the middle class, and they say the economy is better than Americans believe.

The president and his team have launched new efforts to convince them of that. They have embraced the moniker “Bidenomics,” originally coined by Republicans as a slur, and pressed the case that the jobs market is robust and inflation has begun to ease. The vaunted “soft landing” that cools rising costs without tipping the economy into recession just might be achieved.

But that’s not the reality Americans told us they feel in their own lives.

Asked to name one word that describes the state of the economy for them, 3 of 4 of those surveyed volunteered shades of trouble: “Sad” and “struggling.” “Dismal” and “disaster.” “Crashing” and “confusing.”

By more than 3-1, 70%-22%, they said the economy was getting worse, not better.

The poll of 1,000 adults, taken by landline and cellphone Sept. 6-11, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Fairly or not, many of them hold Biden responsible for the hard times they see. They disapproved of his handling of the economy by 59%-34%. They expressed more trust in former President Donald Trump to improve the economy, 47%-36%.

Biden’s anemic approval ratings and broad concern about his age are fueling questions among Democratic operatives and allies, mostly asked behind the scenes, about whether he should seek another term in office. David Ignatius, a ranking member of the Washington establishment and a Biden admirer, expressed those concerns out loud Wednesday in his column in The Washington Post.

“But I don’t think Biden and Vice President Harris should run for reelection,” he wrote. “It’s painful to say that, given my admiration for much of what they have accomplished. But if he and Harris campaign together in 2024, I think Biden risks undoing his greatest achievement − which was stopping Trump.”

Ignatius warned that “time is running out” to withdraw from the campaign to allow other Democrats, including Harris, to compete in next year’s primaries for the nomination.

For Republicans, the risks of overreach

There are risks on the horizon for McCarthy.

On the House floor Tuesday, Florida Republican Matt Gaetz accused McCarthy of not living up to the deal he had made with the Freedom Caucus about spending bills when he was elected speaker, a torturous process that took 15 rounds of voting.

If McCarthy pushes short-term funding, called a continuing resolution, Gaetz said, he would start each day with a parliamentary challenge to the speaker’s position in the leadership.

“The path forward for the House of Representatives is to either bring you into immediate total compliance or remove you, pursuant to a motion to vacate the chair,” he said, the sort of bald threat of retaliation almost unheard-of from a member of Congress toward their own party’s leader.

But if McCarthy and others don’t work out a way to fund the government, Republicans could be seen as responsible for a shutdown and its repercussions by making unrealistic demands and being too uncompromising. If the impeachment inquiry doesn’t turn up evidence of wrongdoing, not just allegations, they could be seen as overreaching.

Ask Newt Gingrich, who in 1994 engineered the first Republican takeover of the House in four decades. But he saw the GOP’s standing fall after a standoff with President Bill Clinton prompted a six-day government shutdown in 1995. Three years later, the GOP’s proceedings to impeach Clinton for lying under oath about his affair with a White House intern caused such blowback among voters that Democrats actually gained House seats in the midterms − the first for a president’s party in more than a half-century.

“I don’t think it worked out too well for us,” Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma told reporters Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

Democrats picked up five House seats in 1998. That happens to be precisely the Republican edge there today.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Impeachment vs. grocery costs: DC erupts while Main Street struggles

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