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Indicator Lag

Why Biden May Never Get Credit for a Booming Economy

Gratitude is an overrated commodity in American politics—and it’s not just Republicans who are pessimistic about the economy.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Thursday was like any other day for Joe Biden and his economy. The latest economic numbers showed that the gross domestic product increased at a healthy 2.4 percent clip in the second quarter—and The New York Times acknowledged that the numbers were “far stronger than forecasters expected a few months ago.” The stock market, Donald Trump’s favorite economic indicator, has now risen nearly 9 percent in the past year with a near-record 13-day winning streak ending Thursday. And a day earlier, the usually gloomy Federal Reserve announced that it was no longer worried about a recession.

Meanwhile, Democrats walked around in a daze baffled by the failure of voters to give Joe Biden credit for a full-employment economy (3.6 percent jobless rate) and a fast-dwindling 3 percent inflation rate. A Quinnipiac University poll, released last week, illustrated the political problem: Only 37 percent of the voters approve of the way that Biden is handling the economy.

The mismatch between the current economic statistics and Biden’s polling numbers serves as a reminder that gratitude can be an overrated commodity in politics.

Yes, James Carville scrawled the oft-quoted words “It’s the economy, stupid” on a blackboard in Bill Clinton’s Little Rock headquarters in 1992. But that economic emphasis worked largely because George H.W. Bush was the president—and it is easy for the challenger to deride the incumbent’s record. John F. Kennedy similarly highlighted the sluggish record of the Republican economy under Dwight Eisenhower with the 1960 slogan “Let’s Get This Country Moving Again.”

The gratitude problem buffeting Biden goes far beyond the vicious partisanship that defines our era. In a recent New Republic article, my colleague and friend Timothy Noah posited that Republican antipathy to anything with Biden’s name attached to it explains much of the president’s polling doldrums on the economy. As he wrote, “Most of the time, you’d be better off just asking, ‘Are you a Democrat or a Republican?’”

The theory may be comforting for Democrats, but it also contains a heavy dollop of wishful thinking. In the recent Quinnipiac poll, only 29 percent of self-described independents give Biden a positive rating on the economy. A Monmouth University Poll, cited in part by Noah, also found that independents give a Bronx cheer to Biden’s economic record. Only 26 percent of this group approves of Biden’s handling of inflation, and only 41 percent award the president a positive rating on “jobs and unemployment.” By the way, these are not just Republican-leaners in disguise: Independents in the Monmouth Poll make up 44 percent of the electorate.

Democrats dream of touting Biden’s economic record in a reprise of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” campaign that led to a 49-state landslide. And the Republicans pulled it off even though unemployment never dipped below 7 percent in 1984. But the Reagan ad worked, in part, because its gauzy imagery evoked feeling tones about the recovery of America from Vietnam, Watergate, and the Iranian hostage crisis.

It is hard for Democrats today to credibly talk of a new dawn or brighter skies, no matter how upbeat the economic indicators are. The public mood is, at best, schizophrenic. According to the Conference Board, consumer confidence hit its highest point in two years in July. But most Americans, reflecting ingrained pessimism, believe that the current buoyant economy is a mirage. Seventy percent of adults, in the Conference Board study, said that a recession was “somewhat” or “very likely” in the next six months.

The problem that Biden faces is that it is nearly impossible for most voters to separate out their feelings about the economy from all the other aspects of this sad-eyed decade. If the depressing aftereffects of a pandemic that killed more than 1.1 million Americans were not enough, climate change has brought with it an inferno of heat, devastating floods, and choking smoky haze. And have I mentioned that democracy is in danger?

There is also more to the economy than the jobless and inflation rates—or even the stock market. It will take decades to significantly reduce the income inequality that began to accelerate during the Reagan years. While Biden is continually tinkering at the margins of the student loan problem, a four-year college education—the great engine of economic mobility—is increasingly unaffordable for many Americans. Wages are now outpacing inflation for the first time in two years, but many voters haven’t noticed, partly because of endemic inequality and partly because this statistical turning point is only 11 days old. And in many parts of nation, the American dream of owning your own home seems as out of reach as owning a racing yacht.

For understandable psychological reasons, it is difficult to credit the president when you get a new job or win a promotion because of the tight labor market. People prefer to believe that their success is solely due to their own talents and hard work rather than a luck-of-draw reflection of the occupant of the White House. But if the cost of milk or gasoline suddenly jumps because of market forces, then voters start muttering, “That damned Biden.”

The Democrats have played the gratitude card before with dismal results. In 1952, with unemployment at just 3 percent and inflation averaging a paltry 2 percent for the year, the incumbent Democrats built their presidential campaign around the seemingly compelling slogan: “You Never Had It So Good.”

But Eisenhower swatted the argument away by redefining what the economy was. In an early television ad, he ridiculed the Democratic claims of prosperity: “Can that be true when America is billions of dollars in debt, when prices have doubled, when taxes break our backs?”

Ike, still basking in the glow from World War II, romped home with 442 electoral votes as the Republicans regained the White House for the first time in two decades.

This nearly forgotten campaign from an America of Bakelite telephones and black-and-white televisions illustrates the downside of building too much of a presidential race around economic statistics. In truth, the biggest political virtue of a buoyant economy is that it gives the incumbent president latitude to fight for reelection over other issues. And with the Republican Party reshaped into the image of the oft-indicted Donald Trump—complete with combover—boy, do the Democrats have other issues to bring to the 2024 fight.