Joe Biden has, to nobody’s surprise, formally announced that he is seeking re-election. And I, for one, am dreading the year and a half of political crystal ball gazing that lies ahead of us — a discussion to which I will have little if anything to add.
One thing I may be able to contribute to, however, is the way we talk about the Biden economy. Much political discussion, it seems to me, is informed by a sense that the economy will be a major liability for Democrats — a sense that is strongly affected by out-of-date or questionable data.
Of course, a lot can change between now and November 2024. We could have a recession, maybe as the delayed effect of monetary tightening by the Federal Reserve. We might all too easily face a financial crisis this summer when, as seems likely, Republicans refuse to raise the debt ceiling — and nobody knows how that will play out politically.
Right now, however, the economy is in better shape than I suspect most pundits or even generally well-informed readers may realize.
The basic story of the Biden economy is that America has experienced a remarkably fast and essentially complete job market recovery. This recovery was initially accompanied by distressingly high inflation; but inflation, while still high by the standards of the past few decades, has subsided substantially. The overall situation is, well, not so bad.
About jobs: Unless you’ve been getting your news from Tucker Carlson or Truth Social, you’re probably aware that the unemployment rate is hovering near historic lows. However, I keep hearing assertions that this number is misleading, because millions of Americans have dropped out of the labor force — which was true a year ago.
But it’s not true anymore. There are multiple ways to make this point, but one way is to compare where we are now with projections made just before Covid struck. In January 2020 the Congressional Budget Office projected that by the first quarter of 2023 nonfarm employment would be 154.8 million; the actual number for March was 155.6 million. As a recent report from the Council of Economic Advisers points out, labor force participation — the percentage of adults either working or actively looking for work — is also right back in line with pre-Covid projections.
In short, we really are back at full employment.
Inflation isn’t as happy a picture. If we measure inflation by the annual rate of change in consumer prices over the past six months — my current preference for trying to extract the signal from the noise — inflation was almost 10 percent in June 2022. But it’s now down to just 3.5 percent.
That’s still above the Fed’s target of 2 percent, and there’s intense debate among economists about how hard it will be to get inflation all the way down (intense because nobody really knows the answer). But maybe some perspective is in order. The current inflation rate is lower than it was at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term.
Or consider the “misery index,” the sum of unemployment and inflation — a crude measure that nonetheless seems to do a pretty good job of predicting consumer sentiment. Using six-month inflation, that index is currently about 7, roughly the same as it was in 2017, when few people considered the economy a disaster.
But never mind these fancy statistics — don’t people perceive the economy as terrible? After all, news coverage tends to emphasize the negative: You hear a lot about soaring prices of gasoline or eggs, much less when they come back down. Even amid a vast jobs boom, consumers report having heard much more negative than positive news about employment.
Even so, do people consider the economy awful? It depends on whom you ask. The venerable Michigan Survey still shows consumer sentiment at levels heretofore associated with severe economic crises. But the also well-established Conference Board survey — which, as it happens, has a much larger sample size — tells a different story: Its “present situation” index is fairly high, roughly comparable to what it was in 2017. That is, it’s more or less in line with the misery index.
And for what it’s worth, both the strength of consumer spending, even in the relatively soft latest report on G.D.P., and the failure of the much-predicted red wave to materialize in the midterm elections look a lot more Conference Board than Michigan.
Again, a lot can happen between now and the election. But what strikes me is that consumers already expect a lot of bad news. The Conference Board expectations index is far below its “present situation” index; consumers expect 4 to 5 percent inflation over the next year, while financial markets expect a number more like 2. If we either don’t have a recession or any recession is brief and mild, if inflation actually does come down, voters seem set to view those outcomes as a positive surprise.
Now, I’m not predicting a “morning in America”-type election; such things probably aren’t even possible in an era of intense partisanship. But the idea that the economy is going to pose a huge problem for Democrats next year isn’t backed by the available data.