“It’s the economy, stupid.”
Those words — written on a big sign that consultant James Carville posted in Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign headquarters in Little Rock — defined a generation of American political wisdom. The U.S. economy had just lost roughly 1 million jobs in a recession the previous year, and the Democratic challenger to George H.W. Bush worked, successfully, to make sure that an incumbent president paid the price.
Today, as President Biden looks toward a midterm election with huge uphill challenges for his Democratic Party, it’s become a lot harder to figure out what the American voter considers “stupid” — or “smart” — when it comes to the U.S. economy. When Biden took office 14 months ago as the nation was still mired in a pandemic and not close to full recovery from the related recession, he and Democrats in Congress moved to stimulate the economy with the goal of triggering a hiring boom.
Did they ever. The official numbers are in for Biden’s first 12 months in office, and the new president shattered previous records for job creation, with a net gain of 6.6 million positions. That tracked with overall economic growth, a 5.7% gain, the best since 1984 when Ronald Reagan cruised to a landslide re-election. But what was particularly striking was how these gains helped low-wage workers who’ve been falling behind for a generation.
For lower income workers, wage gains often outstripped inflation as retail outlets or convenience stores touted hourly rates of $15 an hour or more to lure workers in a suddenly competitive job market. Economists noted that a lot of the progress — including about half of the job creation — was directly tied to the backing of Biden and Democrats for a $1.9 trillion pandemic-linked stimulus that expanded unemployment benefits and the Child Tax Credit, which for a time had cut child poverty in half until the program was allowed to expire.
Yet polls show that voters have given Biden pretty lousy marks for the economy. That’s thanks to an almost laser-like focus on the one large downside: historically high levels of inflation. Voters cited higher prices at the gas pump — a problem exacerbated in recent days by the war in Ukraine and the new ban on Russian fuels — and the supermarket. Just last month, some 58% of Americans in an ABC News/Washington Post poll disapproved of the president’s handling of the economy, driving his overall popularity to similar lows.
The contrast between the overall positive economic growth numbers and Biden’s negative poll numbers has flummoxed some economists who generally support the Democratic policies. “The disconnect is huge,” Heidi Shierholz, the president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning, pro-union think tank, told me this week. Like many following the issue, she wondered how much media coverage of the economy is to blame, noting that sometimes when she praises Biden’s job-creation record, “people think I’m saying talking points.”
Yet Shierholz, a former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, and other experts also say they understand some of the reasons Americans are in a sour mood. She noted that even with the 6.6 million jobs, overall employment hasn’t quite reached the level of March 2020 when COVID-19 struck, while frustration that the omicron variant prolonged pandemic restrictions seems to have colored views of the economy as well. More importantly, higher prices affect — and annoy — everyone, including millions who didn’t get a new job or a major raise in 2021.
As Lawrence Summers, the former head of the National Economic Council under Barack Obama who’s been banging the inflation drum since Biden took office, told NPR recently, “People tend to think that ... higher prices are something that’s being stolen from them.” He’s not wrong, and in particular gas prices — displayed digitally on a scoreboard for daily commuters, a kind of real-world bad-news chyron — have a unique effect on Americans’ blood pressure.
But it also seems clear that several factors have warped public perceptions in the Biden era. Because voters’ attitudes in 2022 often go beyond understandable gripes about inflation to embrace notions that are flat-out wrong. Earlier this month, a shocking poll from a progressive data firm, Navigator Research, found that a plurality of Americans think there was a net job loss in 2021 (37%, versus just 28% who said correctly that employment increased) or think the nation is currently experiencing more job loss than usual (35%).
It’s hard not to blame the news media for a lot of this. As prices began to rise, mainstream reporters — especially in TV, the primary source of news for many Americans — went into full man-bites-dog mode in finding the emptiest, or priciest, supermarkets shelves, or the downtown gas station with the most outrageous prices (one on L.A.’s Olympic Boulevard is notorious) to film their stand-ups. But also look to the rise of right-wing, all-Biden-bashing-all-the-time outlets like Fox News. When prices began rising last summer, a Real Clear Politics analysis showed Fox News mentioned inflation way more times than comparable outlets, while a good jobs report got brief, mumbled coverage.
Of course, it’s hard to know where our increasingly partisan news media stops and our broader partisan anger and division begins. Republicans generally give Biden low marks on everything so it’s hardly a shock these same folks would accentuate the negative of inflation rather than praise their comic book villain for creating jobs.
But I think there’s a factor we don’t talk about as much. It sounds almost trite to say that “the economy” means something different to practically every American, but I would note that inflation hammers some wider groups harder than others, just as certain demographic groups benefit more from a healthy job market.
It’s hardly rocket science that if you didn’t get a new job or a substantial raise since January 2021, then the only economic news rocking your world right now is $4-a-gallon-gas (and maybe the notorious $9 steak burrito). The evidence suggests wage earners, especially at the lower ranks, saw bigger gains than small business owners — a group that a) favored Trump in 2020 as Biden was winning the popular vote and b) currently blames Biden for inflation. Likewise, retirees on fairly fixed incomes don’t care about the job market but worry a lot about higher prices.
But who are the beneficiaries of the Biden boom? After all, as EPI’s Shierholz pointed out, the 6.6 million jobs gain in 2021 is a net figure, and thus the actual churn of people into new jobs with better pay or working conditions was considerably higher. But if the biggest gainers were lower-wage workers, then those winners would be also disproportionally young and not white. In other words, people who were probably already more inclined to support Biden — and who also don’t have the loudest voice in the national conversation.
The idea that Biden could solve his political problem with a focus on inflation has several flaws. First, the fact that other developed economies — regardless or their leader or policies — are also currently experiencing high inflation suggests that factors like pandemic supply chain woes, and now a war in Eastern Europe, are a bigger problem that what the White House is (or isn’t) doing. Also, past presidents who did successfully tamp inflation — most notably Reagan in the early 1980s — did so through higher interest rates that caused spikes in both joblessness and voter anger. I don’t think Biden wants to escape the frying pan by jumping into that fire.
EPI’s Shierholz said her biggest worry is that panic over inflation will be used to justify killing policy ideas — like renewing the monthly Child Tax Credit payments — that would help struggling families. “The high inflation does not preclude us from doing additional investments,” she insisted — and this sounds right. Widen your lens to the 40-year view, and suddenly the biggest problem with the U.S. economy is neither inflation nor spikes in unemployment, but its fundamental unfairness — the lack of real income growth for the wide working class, with real gains concentrated in the oligarchs at the very top. A livable paycheck for all Americans and a working safety net is the best way to steer through the next potholes that will inevitably pockmark the road ahead.
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