The Viral $16 McDonald’s Meal That Took a Bite out of Bidenomics
The Viral $16 McDonald’s Meal That Took a Bite out of Bidenomics

By Emel Akan

An eye-popping receipt for a $16 McDonald’s meal posted on TikTok last year has resurfaced and gone viral, serving a taste of how many Americans are battling with soaring food prices.

What started as a simple TikTok video has now become a symbol of economic anxiety, with some tying the pricey burger to what they see as President Joe Biden’s poor economic management. There has been a boom of similar videos on TikTok as inflation remains a hot topic, especially among millennials and Gen Zers.

Meanwhile, some media outlets contend that such videos could be fostering negative perceptions of both the economy and the Biden administration, potentially fueling exaggerated pessimism that could pose a challenge to the president’s reelection bid.

A McDonald’s meal sits on a table in one of its fast food restaurants in Miami on July 26, 2022. (Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

It all started on Dec. 20, 2022, when a man named Topher Olive went to his local McDonald’s in Post Falls, Idaho, and ordered a Smoky BLT Double Quarter Pounder with fries and a Sprite. To his shock, the receipt showed a total of $16.10.

“I get there’s a labor shortage. I get there’s wage increases and a number of other things. But $16—$16 for a burger, a large fry, and a drink. It’s just crazy,” he said in a TikTok video as he shared the receipt for his hefty fast-food bill.

It’s worth noting that the menu item was a limited-time offering at McDonald’s, featuring a freshly prepared quarter-pound beef patty, which the video overlooked.

Shortly after sharing the video, Mr. Olive’s post attracted more than 125,000 views. In early November, 11 months later, the post regained traction after the release of a McDonald’s earnings report, which exceeded Wall Street’s expectations. The company attributed the third-quarter revenue growth to “strategic menu price increases.”

Recently, many news organizations picked up the story of Mr. Olive’s pricey burger. The New York Times and The Washington Post, for example, investigated whether TikTok posts in general are fueling voter anger toward President Biden.

Some media portrayed the recent viral video as an overblown example of the country’s economic woes. They contend that while novelty burgers, such as the limited-edition Smoky BLT Double Quarter Pounder, are expensive, other popular items, such as the Big Mac, haven’t seen a big price increase.

The average cost of a Big Mac in the United States in June was $5.58, up 70 cents from the $4.89 it was before President Biden took office, according to The Economist magazine’s Big Mac index.

A customer waits to order food at a McDonald’s fast-food restaurant on July 26, 2022, in Miami. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

These viral videos are posing a challenge to the Biden administration, which is dealing with public discontent about the economy despite encouraging signs in recent months such as a lower inflation rate and better-than-expected economic growth.

Social media posts don’t always reflect the facts, and they can exaggerate people’s situations, however, they can still influence people’s perceptions of the economy, according to Karen Hult, a political science professor at Virginia Tech.

What is unclear, however, is the number of individuals who watch those videos and whether the videos can influence how they vote, she told The Epoch Times. Ms. Hult believes that viral videos “can be overstated in terms of their likely impact” on the upcoming election.

The White House didn’t respond to The Epoch Times’ request for comment.

Viral videos on social media are upsetting the economic messages that the Biden administration wants to portray. (Robin Worrall/Unsplash)

‘Silent Depression’

Mackenzie, a registered nurse, is among the millions of Americans who strive to make ends meet. In a recent TikTok video, she detailed her family’s financial struggles.

“We just got paid this past Friday. We paid the mortgage, bought some groceries, and put some gas in the car. Guys, it is Tuesday,” she said.

She sobbed and broke down on camera while explaining that they only had $300 to last until the following Friday.

“I don’t know what to do. I’m so stressed out. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” she said.

Her video went viral, attracting 1.6 million views and more than 20,000 comments on TikTok.

Like Mackenzie, many influencers are turning to TikTok to voice their frustration about the economy. Hashtags such as “SilentDepression” are popular on the platform, and some posts have gone as far as to draw parallels between the year 2023 and the Great Depression in the United States.

A crowd of depositors outside of the American Union Bank in New York, having failed to withdraw their savings before the bank collapsed, on June 30, 1931. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The White House is concerned that the viral videos may overshadow the president’s upbeat “Bidenomics” message, according to media reports.

Early this year, the Biden administration announced that it was conducting a national security review of Chinese-owned TikTok and banned the app from U.S. government devices.

Despite that, President Biden’s reelection campaign is working with TikTok content creators to bolster a positive narrative about the economy.

Poll after poll shows that the 46th president is struggling to win over U.S. voters with his economic agenda.

President Biden’s job approval rating has reached an all-time low since he took office, according to the most recent NBC News poll, with only 40 percent of registered voters approving of his performance.

President Joe Biden (R) arrives to deliver remarks on new actions to strengthen supply chains, in the Indian Treaty Room of the White House in Washington on Nov. 27, 2023. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Only 31 percent of voters ages 18 to 34 expressed approval of the president’s job performance, marking a notable decline from 46 percent in September.

Recent polls also indicate that in a hypothetical general election matchup, former President Donald Trump holds a lead over President Biden. Several surveys reveal that voters have greater trust in President Trump than in President Biden when it comes to addressing economic problems.

“The public is still in a very sour mood” about the economy, according to Merrill Matthews, a resident scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation, a public policy think tank.

Inflation has taken a significant toll on many Americans, particularly those with lower incomes, impacting essentials such as food, gasoline, and housing costs. On top of that, rising interest rates have made it difficult for them to secure affordable home loans.

“All of those things, I think, are striking people very negatively,” Mr. Matthews told The Epoch Times.

Despite overall economic improvement, these individual struggles are strongly influencing people’s perceptions, highlighting the disconnect between macroeconomic data and personal financial situations, he said.

The rate of inflation has slowed in recent months, a source of pride for President Biden. But, overall, prices have surged by nearly 18 percent since he took office—more than 20 percent for food, about 55 percent for gasoline, and 18 percent for housing, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Gen Z’s Growing Power

In the next presidential election, 40.8 million members of Gen Z (those born after 1996) will be eligible to vote, giving these young people enormous political clout. When their voting power is combined with that of millennials, they may account for as many votes next year as do baby boomers and their elders.

According to Ms. Hult, some studies indicate that people tend to form their perceptions of economic performance approximately six months before an election.

President George Bush (R) answers questions as Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton (L) listens on Oct. 11, 1992, in St. Louis, Mo. The two men, as well as independent candidate Ross Perot, were participating in the first of three presidential debates. (Photo by EUGENE GARCIA/AFP via Getty Images)

Even if the economy improves in the months leading up to the election, changing people’s perceptions becomes challenging, as demonstrated by President George H.W. Bush’s 1992 reelection loss to Bill Clinton.

“The window for the Democrats is closing pretty quickly,” Ms. Hult said.

A growing number of Americans, especially young voters, are also losing faith in the American dream because of the ongoing pessimism about the economy.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NORC survey, belief in the American dream, which holds that hard work can lead to prosperity regardless of one’s background, has dropped significantly among Americans. Only 36 percent of respondents in the survey still believe in the American dream, down from 53 percent in 2012 and 48 percent in 2016.

The challenges for President Biden in relation to TikTok and viral videos in general go beyond a $16 burger.

For example, TikTok has played a major role in spreading pro-Hamas propaganda while downplaying and concealing information regarding Israel and U.S. interests in the Middle East since the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, Arthur Herman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told The Epoch Times.

This is yet another point of concern for President Biden, whose handling of the Israel–Hamas war has contributed to his recent decline in approval ratings. The recent NBC News poll showed that a substantial 70 percent of respondents ages 18 to 34 disapprove of President Biden’s handling of the Hamas–Israel conflict.

A security guard stands at the entrance of the headquarters of ByteDance, the owner of video sharing app TikTok, in Beijing on Aug. 5, 2020. (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

National Security Concerns

Both the Trump administration and the current administration have considered banning TikTok, one of the most popular mobile apps in the country, with roughly 100 million monthly active users.

The core issue driving the current backlash against the app lies in the fact that its Chinese owner, ByteDance, has access to extensive data on millions of Americans. TikTok gathers substantial amounts of personal information, raising concerns that the Chinese government might compel the app’s owner to share data on U.S. users.

TikTok’s algorithm is known to be very sophisticated. Mr. Herman argues that the Chinese-owned app can control users in a very subtle way and engage in “brainwashing.”

“It can influence and manipulate American users, particularly young people, in ways that are beneficial to China’s national interest but can also be used to undermine our national interest,” he told The Epoch Times.

“This is a company that moves at the direction of the … Chinese Communist Party.”

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew prepares to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 23, 2023. The hearing was a rare opportunity for lawmakers to question the leader of the short-form social media video app about the company’s relationship with its Chinese owner, ByteDance, and how it handles users’ sensitive personal data. Some local, state, and federal government agencies have been banning the use of TikTok by employees, citing concerns about national security (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Elections in 2024, however, are making the situation more complicated because political candidates—mostly Democrats but also Republicans—are using TikTok as a vital tool to reach voters.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for Congress to ban TikTok, Mr. Herman said, because candidates are using it in their political arsenal.

“There’s an increasing unwillingness on the part of the Biden administration to take any kind of step that could cause a flare-up or more friction in its relations with China, especially as it looks ahead to the 2024 election,” he said.

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