You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

It’s the Biden vs. Trump Economy—and Hell No, It’s Not Even Close

The facts are clear: Biden has overseen a stronger economy than Trump did. That reality should dominate his reelection campaign.

Cassidy Araiza/Bloomberg/Getty Images

I’m going to tell you something that I’m pretty sure you don’t know—and that you probably won’t even believe. Ready? Real wages are now growing in the United States at a pace faster than the spike in the cost of living since the pandemic. More than that: For the first time in decades, wage growth is consistently stronger in the middle and at the bottom than at the top.

See, I told you that you wouldn’t believe it. But it’s right there in a recent study by David Autor, Arindrajit Dube, and Annie McGrew, three well-known economists. Dube just wrote up the results at Project Syndicate, emphasizing: “Importantly, the real wages of the middle quintile are not only higher today than they were before the pandemic, but slightly higher than we would expect based on 2015-19 trends. In other words, the typical American worker’s purchasing power has grown at least as much as it likely would have in the absence of the global challenges posed by the pandemic and geopolitical conflicts.”

If you’re waiting to see this reported in the mainstream media, except by me and my colleague Tim Noah and a small handful of other people, I advise you to stop. It’s not going to happen. In the mainstream media, there’s still largely one Joe Biden–era economic story: inflation, gas prices, people feeling worse off than they did four years ago, and ooh, did he just forget someone’s name again?

I don’t deny any of the bad news. Inflation has been punishing. Gas prices are about $1 higher per gallon than they were in 2020 (they were higher in 2019 than 2020 because of the pandemic-driven downturn); that’s about $15 more to fill a tank, a lot of money to a working person. Liberals shouldn’t lecture people to feel good about the economy when they’re just not feeling it. I get that. I come from West Virginia. People who acutely feel the pain of higher gas prices aren’t abstractions to me.

And yet … at some point, don’t facts matter? If this election is going to come down to the Biden economy versus the Trump economy—which, for those famous swing voters in those famous six or seven states, it likely will—then facts had better matter, and Democrats from the White House on down had better get a lot more aggressive about touting them, because they are affirmatively on Biden’s side.

Biden took a pretty good swing at Trump last week when Trump raised the old Reagan question, Are you better off than you were four years ago? It was astonishingly tone-deaf timing on Trump’s part, since in the third week of March four years ago, the nation had just gone under lockdown and life was terrifying and out of control and he was a laughingstock. By March 24, there were 65,800 confirmed Covid cases in the country, and yet Trump chose that date to make his crazy-sauce Easter Proclamation, if I may borrow a phrase. Remember? “I think Easter Sunday—you’ll have packed churches all over our country.” Most families still weren’t even getting together that Christmas, nine months later.

The Biden campaign on Thursday hit Trump with this ad about Trump’s disastrous pandemic dereliction:

It’s a pretty good ad, though I think they missed a few clean shots. The one Trump comment that most stands out in my mind is this gem from late February: “We have a total of 15. We took in some from Japan—you heard about that—because they’re American citizens, and they’re in quarantine.… So, again, when you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”

That 15 was never, of course, close to zero. For that matter, he was—of course!—lying about the 15. It was more like 200. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump catalogued 40 times Trump predicted the virus was going away (“It’s gonna go away without a vaccine” was a real winner).

There are two issues the Biden campaign needs to stress going forward. The first is the one raised by this new ad—how much is to be gained politically by reminding the American people of Trump’s hideous handling of the outbreak. I think at this point it’s hard to say. People remember nothing. They probably think it wasn’t Trump’s fault, and he did OK. It’s true that it wasn’t his fault, and let’s remember that he did lay out the money for Operation Warp Speed.

But he did a lot of things wrong, including lying to the American people about the virus’s severity and standing up there at those nightly press conferences making a total ass of himself. A few hundred thousand people died who didn’t have to die. It’s essential to remind voters of that, to tell that narrative. He was a disaster and an embarrassment.

The second issue is the broader comparison of the two economies. Trump’s pre-pandemic economy, as I’ve written before, was good. Trump haters can’t deny it. It wasn’t because of anything he did. He passed a tax cut for the rich. It goosed demand a little, and it did help the stock market. Median household income rose dramatically in one year, from 2018 to 2019.

But it was not the greatest economy in the history of the universe. Trump’s jobs numbers in his first two years lagged behind Barack Obama’s in his last two, 4.5 million to 5.2 million. And both are way behind Biden’s first two-year total of nearly 11 million. And wages, as I noted above, are up. And they’re especially up for the middle class and the poor. This is what “middle-out economics” means.

Granted, Democrats have to be careful how they talk about all this. But they have to find a way, and it has to be completely free of the backtracking and apologetics Democrats so often display. Jobs are up. Wages are up. The stock market is way up. Inequality is down. The deficit is down. Big laws passed under Biden are opening factories and putting people to work. It’s all true.

Being sensitive to how people hear things doesn’t mean letting Trump tell lies about Biden’s record and then hemming and hawing in its defense. Trump inherited a good economy and didn’t screw it up—until a crisis hit that he was completely unprepared for and lied about constantly and refused to take responsibility for. Biden inherited a horrible economy, got us out of that crisis, suffered through a price crisis that also affected the rest of the developed world, but is now presiding over the greatest monthly job growth in history (yes, at 289,000 a month) and is keeping his core campaign promise of shifting wealth from the top to the middle and the bottom. Why is it so hard to tell that story, Democrats?