Can Joe Biden Save Christmas?

There will be two chickens in every pot this holiday season. Maybe three.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on ending the war in Afghanistan, Tuesday, August 31, 2021, in front of the Cross Hall of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

My initial reaction to the NYT headline “The Biden administration, under fire for supply chain woes, says stores will be fully stocked for the holidays” was that the President is making promises he can’t keep. Indeed, that was the subhed of this post even after I read enough of the story to decide it was worth taking the time to blog.

President Biden told executives from some of the nation’s largest retailers on Monday that his administration was committed to partnering with them to untangle supply chains and ensure that American consumers can find everything they want this holiday season, as a surge in shopping tests an already strained global delivery system.

[…]

The meeting was part of a larger effort by the president to show he is doing everything he can to combat inflation and ensure a more normal holiday shopping season as Covid-19 continues to persist. Mr. Biden has made a push to unclog ports, address trucker shortages and take other steps to alleviate the pressure created by consumers looking to buy couches, cars and electronics instead of eating out or going to theme parks.

But the White House has limited reach to affect a supply chain that is controlled by private companies and shaped by larger forces, like the pandemic and consumer demand.

Still, top officials tried to reassure a nervous public on Monday that consumers would be able to purchase what they want.

“There are going to be toys on your shelves,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters after noting that Black Friday sales were up by nearly a third this year in preliminary estimates. “There is going to be food in your grocery stores.”

Shipping costs have begun to recede slightly from stratospheric highs as West Coast ports work to reduce congestion. Officials announced new measures on Monday to incentivize night and weekend container pickup at ports, and they highlighted data showing a continued decline in the backlogs of unloaded containers.

But many trade experts say the supply chain crisis is far from over. Extraordinarily high demand in the United States for products made in Asian factories, combined with a shortage of truckers and warehouse workers, means supply chain issues are likely to be long-lived.

Phil Levy, the chief economist at Flexport, a freight forwarder, said that the organization’s data “does not show things getting much better. Not yet.”

He said the dramatic increase in demand in the United States for goods had created a backlog of orders that will take months to fulfill. Congestion could even persist through next year, he said, unless an early end to the pandemic or a market crash suddenly encourages Americans to curtail their spending.

While I don’t blame Biden—or, hell, even former President Trump—for the supply chain mess, it struck me as foolish for him to tell the American people that he was going to somehow fix it within the next few days. It just struck me as an unnecessary own-goal.

Then I read the next paragraph:

While companies of all sizes continue to face shipping delays and elevated transportation costs, most major retailers have said they expect their shelves to be fully stocked during the holidays. Companies have gone to extraordinary measures to procure goods in time for the holidays, including chartering their own vessels and shipping products by air instead of by sea.

That’s the eleventh paragraph (granted, newspaper paragraphs can be quite short). And yet it completely changes the story!

So, basically, the President is promising to do all he can to partner with businesses to hasten up the opening of the supply chains and his people are reassuring the American people that these issues won’t impact their ability to put food on the holiday table or toys under the Christmas tree because retailers have already ensured that will be the case. If anything, he’s taking credit for something he had nothing to do with, which is a time-honored tradition of effective politicians everywhere.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Media, US Politics, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kingdaddy says:

    The alleged supply chain “crisis” is only a real crisis to the extent that (1) prices on goods increase dramatically, or (2) essential goods are unavailable. It’s not a crisis if holiday shoppers have only 200 times the choices that consumers did 50 years ago, instead of the expected 1,000 times.

    24
  2. JohnMcC says:

    @Kingdaddy: Yes. No doubt. But it isn’t the deeply impoverished who start revolutions, it is those who have what they need but not what they think they deserve. And relatedly, it depends on what network you watch whether this is a ‘crisis’.

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  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The war on Xmas has really gotten out of hand this year.

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  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    So a president is responsible for the operation of businesses in the country. Perhaps Xi is, but here? What about capitalism and free markets don’t Americans understand?

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  5. reid says:

    @Kingdaddy: We are becoming the worst generation. A bunch of spoiled babies who panic and look for someone to blame if half the toilet paper aisle is empty. We would not do well in an actual crisis.

    6
  6. Kathy says:

    @reid:

    We would not do well in an actual crisis.

    Would?

    If it’s any consolation, hardly anyone has done well in the COVID crisis.

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  7. Andy says:

    @Kingdaddy:

    It’s only a crisis for politicians who will receive the blame (unfairly or not). For normies, it’s simply an annoyance.

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  8. reid says:

    @Kathy: I didn’t mean to downplay covid. of course. I meant a crisis where we actually have to come together to tighten our belts, ration supplies, etc., as in WW 2 or similar.

    3
  9. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Andy:

    For normies, it’s simply an annoyance.

    Some of it is a bit of a crisis for normies. While not having toys isn’t a big deal, needed materials are caught up in those shortages. Aside from the chips–which everyone knows about–we’re having a difficult time getting copper for manufacturing, and cardboard and foam to ship out our products.

    We have a container of materials that we need that was packed up in Asia, shipped to California, put on a train to Chicago, where it was unloaded and put in a overflow lot. Where it currently sits, racking up storage fees. It’s a 3 hour drive from here, and we can’t get to it. That’s sales that aren’t being made, which means it’s raises and bonuses that aren’t being paid out. The last I heard, we have about $2M in bookings waiting to be built. But we don’t have the parts to do it.

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  10. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    So a president is responsible for the operation of businesses in the country. Perhaps Xi is, but here? What about capitalism and free markets don’t Americans understand?

    Congress–or, to be more precise, the administrative agencies that Congress have given open authority to–have a very large impact. Ask and Owner-Operator trucker about the restrictions they have to deal with. Ask the steel industry how well those tariffs are working out for them.

    The President can, through executive action, eliminate a lot of those restrictions–which, has been done over the past year on an “emergency” status. And guess what? We haven’t had a spike in semis crashing on our interstates.

    Government can help businesses by eliminating rent-seeking and protectionist regulations, focus on safety and anti-fraud measures, and let businesses go about their business.

    Start by eliminating the Jones Act.

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  11. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    While I don’t blame Biden—or, hell, even former President Trump—for the supply chain mess…

    The supply chain mess is a direct function of the pandemic compounding “just-in-time” inventory challenges so, to the extent Trump bungled the pandemic response as badly as it could possibly be bungled, then of course Trump is to blame. JFC…he fuqed up the economy, including the supply chain, and killed the lions share of 800,000 Americans, and you’re falling all over yourself to give him a free-pass for that.
    As for Biden,

    If anything, he’s taking credit for something he had nothing to do with, which is a time-honored tradition of effective politicians everywhere.

    Let’s see if the private sector agrees with you, shall we?
    Walmart; “The combination of private enterprise and government working together has been really successful…We’ve had a lot of participation, been able to participate in solving some of these congestion issues, so I would like to give the administration credit for helping do things like get the ports open 24 hours a day, to open up some of the trucking lines…and then all the way through the supply chain there’s been a lot of innovation.”
    Mattel; “I was very impressed & encouraged by the keen interest and real partnership that
    @POTUS is demonstrating…to make sure there is enough product on shelves…We are seeing consistent improvement in supply chain and reduction of congestion in ports.”
    Of course Biden can’t do it all by himself. That’s a childish idea I would expect from the likes of Jim Jordan and Madison Cawthorn and the rest of the Kids Table Caucus. But he can partner, effectively, with the private sector and it appears that the private sector thinks he has.

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  12. Kathy says:

    @reid:

    I didn’t mean to imply that you were.

    I’m reminded of an early pandemic meme: your grandparents were asked to face machine guns and mortar shells storming the beaches of Normandy. You’re being asked to sit on the couch.

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  13. JKB says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Right now the media is running hype. Ships offshore make nice video. But the real problem is buried containers in a yard. You can’t get yours until the others are shipped out. The big retailers can send their fleet of trucks to get their containers, but the little guys are dependent up on they system.

    And those delayed feedstocks, goods in production, are as you say, killing sales, killing bonuses, at the manufacturers. Similar with shelves at retailers without their own trucks.

    All this means less business tax, less income tax and less sales tax in the coming months for local/state government. Cutbacks in the new year for fear of layoffs and delayed purchases from local suppliers.

    All of which will keep the knock on effects a live and well into the 2022 campaign season.

    1
  14. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @JKB:
    The sky is falling.
    Only it’s not. It’s getting better. After your fat orange idol fuq’ed it up.
    Go sit at the kids table, and cry, while the adults work it out.

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  15. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Best war on Christmas quote I ever saw (on Twitter, natch):

    The war on Christmas will continue until Christmas ends its illegal occupation of November.

    Thank you, thank you. Try the veal.

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  16. reid says:

    @Kathy: Yes. I’ve seen a meme about your grandparents taking bullets while “you” won’t even take a vaccine.

    I felt similarly when people were insisting on going to crowded bars and restaurants in 2020.

    Just for the record, my rare posts here are too-often off the cuff and and brief. I know it’s a complex situation, and that I’m probably over-glorifying the WW 2 generation while condemning today’s. I’m sure social media (including things like angry tweets about people’s favorite crackers not being available in their local market) contributes to it.

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  17. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    From Volkswagen:
    VOLKSWAGEN CEO SAYS WORST OF SUPPLY CHAIN ISSUES BEHIND US, SEEING LIGHT INCREASE IN PRODUCTION VOLUMES

    1
  18. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    From your list, it seems that congress is to blame and that the president has acted within the latitude that he has been granted.

    The Jones Act should be repealed, but again congress…

    As far as truck drivers are concerned, any industry that has a turnover rate among employees of ~150% has issues that go far beyond what a government, in our system, can resolve.

    5
  19. Han says:

    @Kathy:

    I’m reminded of an early pandemic meme: your grandparents were asked to face machine guns and mortar shells storming the beaches of Normandy. You’re being asked to sit on the couch.

    Have you tried sitting on my couch? It’s lumpy and uncomfortable. And it’s 6-8 months to get a new custom-order one that goes with my decor. Thanks a lot, Brandon!

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  20. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Wait a second, just a few weeks ago someone was noting that at $1/mile, truck drivers were making over $100k a year. Something’s wrong here.

  21. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    I noted that on my trip to/from Minnesota, I noted offers of $1/mile to drive for various companies. It appears that is an offer for owner/operators who need to take out their expenses. Subsequently this article https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/09/us/politics/trucker-shortage-supply-chain.html and others popped up delving into why there is a driver shortage.

    It seems that if you treat humans as machines, they stop working for you, thus, 150% turnover. So an owner/operator probably does make in excess of $100,000 gross, but what is he living on after expenses?

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  22. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Well, that’s what I’d thought at the time IIRC. Driving long haul has always been a pretty tough way to make a living IMO, but I knew guys years ago who enjoyed the work and the road and managed to do okay. The company I worked for ran a fleet of long-haul trucks. I don’t recall 150% annual turnover in the staffing. I don’t recall any turnover at all, in fact. Things are different now.

    And given that the last (new) tractor/trailer rig that I recall hearing that someone had bought cost about half a mil, I’m skeptical that $100k a year would cut it.

  23. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    And given that the last (new) tractor/trailer rig that I recall hearing that someone had bought cost about half a mil, I’m skeptical that $100k a year would cut it.

    I don’t disagree.

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