Presidents seeking a second term have often found the public’s perception of the economy a pivotal issue. It was a boon to Ronald Reagan; it helped usher Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush out of the White House.
Now, as President Biden looks toward a re-election campaign, there are warning signals on that front: With overall consumer sentiment at a low ebb despite solid economic data, even Democrats who supported Mr. Biden in 2020 say they’re not impressed with the economy.
In a recent New York Times/Siena College poll of voters in six battleground states, 62 percent of those voters think the economy is only “fair” or “poor” (compared with 97 percent for those who voted for Donald J. Trump).
The demographics of Mr. Biden’s 2020 supporters may explain part of his challenge now: They were on balance younger, had lower incomes and were more racially diverse than Mr. Trump’s. Those groups tend to be hit hardest by inflation, which has yet to return to 2020 levels, and high interest rates, which have frustrated first-time home buyers and drained the finances of those dependent on credit.
But if the election were held today, and the options were Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, it’s not clear whether voter perceptions of the economy would tip the balance.
“The last midterm was an abortion election,” said Joshua Doss, an analyst at the public opinion research firm HIT Strategies, referring to the 2022 voting that followed the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling. “Most of the time, elections are about ‘it’s the economy, stupid.’ Republicans lost that because of Roe. So we’re definitely in uncharted territory.”
There are things working in Mr. Biden’s favor. First, Mr. Doss said, the economic programs enacted under the Biden administration remain broadly popular, providing a political foundation for Mr. Biden to build on. And second, social issues — which lifted the Democrats in the midterms — remain a prominent concern.
Take Oscar Nuñez, 27, a server at a restaurant in Las Vegas. Foot traffic has been much slower than usual for this time of year, eating into his tips. He’d like to start his own business, but with the rising cost of living, he and his wife — who works at home answering questions from independent contractors for her employer — haven’t managed to save much money. It’s also a tough jump to make when the economy feels shaky.
Mr. Nuñez expected better from Mr. Biden when he voted blue in 2020, he said, but he wasn’t sure what specifically the president should have done better. And he is pretty sure another Trump term would be a disaster.
“I’d prefer another option, but it seems like it will once again be my only option again,” Mr. Nuñez said of Mr. Biden. For him, immigrants’ rights and foreign policy concerns are more important. “That’s why I was picking him over Trump in the first place — because this guy’s going to do something that’s real dangerous at some point.”
Mr. Nuñez isn’t alone in feeling dissatisfied with the economy but still bound to Mr. Biden by other priorities. Of those surveyed in the six battleground states who plan to vote for Mr. Biden in 2024, 47 percent say social issues are more important to them, while 42 percent say the economy is more important — but that’s a closer split than in the 2022 midterms, in which social issues decisively outweighed economic concerns among Democratic voters in several swing states. (Among likely Trump voters, 71 percent say they are most focused on the economy, while 15 percent favor social issues.)
Dour sentiment about the economy also isn’t limited to people who’ve been frustrated in their financial ambitions.
Mackenzie Kiser, 20, and Lawson Millwood, 21, students at the University of North Georgia, managed to buy a house this year. Mr. Millwood’s income as an information-technology systems administrator at the university was enough to qualify, and they worried that affordability would only worsen if they waited because of rising interest rates and prices. Still, the experience left a bitter taste.
“The housing market is absolutely insane,” said Ms. Kiser, who wasn’t old enough to vote in 2020 but leans progressive. “We paid the same for our one-story, one-bedroom cinder-block 1950s house as my mom paid for her three-story, four-bedroom house less than a decade ago.”
Ms. Kiser doesn’t think Mr. Biden has done much to help the economy, and she worries he’s too old to be effective. But Mr. Trump isn’t more appealing on that front.
“It’s not that I think that anybody of a different party could do better, but more that someone with their mental faculties who’s not retirement age could do a better job,” Ms. Kiser said. “Our choices are retirement age or retirement age, so it’s rock and a hard place right now.”
Generally, voters don’t think Republicans are fixing the economy, either. In a poll conducted this month by the progressive-leaning Navigator Research, 70 percent of voters in battleground House districts, including a majority of Republicans, said they thought Republicans were more focused on issues other than the economy.
The health of the economy is still a major variable leading up to the election. A downturn could fray what the president cites as a signal accomplishment of Bidenomics: low unemployment. A study of the 2016 election found that higher localized unemployment made Black voters, an overwhelmingly Democratic constituency, less likely to vote at all.
“I think the likelihood that they would choose Trump is not the threat,” Mr. Doss said. “The threat is that they would choose the couch and stay home, and enough of them would stay home for an electoral college win for Trump.”
But in the absence of a competitive Democratic primary, the campaigning — and television spots — have yet to commence in earnest. When they do, Mr. Doss has some ideas.
So far, Mr. Biden’s messaging has focused on macroeconomic indicators like the unemployment rate and tackling inflation. “The truth is, that’s not the economy to most people,” Mr. Doss said. “The economy to most people is gas prices and food and whether or not they can afford to throw a birthday party for their kid.”
It’s difficult for presidents to directly control inflation in the short term. But the White House has addressed a few specific costs that matter for families, by releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to contain surging oil prices in late 2022, for example. The Inflation Reduction Act reduced prescription drug prices under Medicare and capped the cost of insulin for people with diabetes. The administration is also going after what it calls “junk fees,” which inflate the prices of things like concert tickets, airline tickets and even birthday parties.
The more the administration talks about its concrete efforts to lower prices, the more Mr. Biden will benefit, Mr. Doss said. At the same time, Mr. Biden can lessen the blowback from persistent inflation by deflecting blame — an out-of-control pandemic was the original cause, he could plausibly argue, and most other wealthy countries are worse off.
That’s how it seems to Kendra McDowell, 44, an accountant and single mother of four in Harrisburg, Pa. She feels the sting of inflation every time she goes to the grocery store — she spent $1,000 on groceries this past month and didn’t even fill her deep freezer — and in the health of her clients’ balance sheets. Despite her judgment that the economy is poor, however, she still has enough confidence to start a business in home-based care, a field in greater demand since Covid-19 ripped through nursing homes.
“When I talk about the economy, it’s just inflation, and to me inflation is systemic and coming from the Trump administration,” Ms. McDowell said. If the pandemic had been contained quickly, she reasoned, supply chains and labor disruptions wouldn’t have sent prices soaring in the first place.
Moreover, she sees the situation healing itself, and thinks Mr. Biden is doing the best he can given the challenges of the wars in Ukraine and now Gaza. “People are shopping — you know why? Because they’ve got jobs,” Ms. McDowell said. “God forbid, today or tomorrow, if I had to go find a job, it’s easier than it was before.”
Ms. McDowell is what’s known in public opinion research as a high-information voter. Polls have shown that those less apt to stay up on the news tend to change their views when provided with more background on what the Biden administration has both accomplished and attempted.
The 15-month-old Inflation Reduction Act is still little known, for example. But this past March, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 68 percent of respondents supported it when filled in on its main components.
A frequent theme of conversations with Democratic voters who see the economy as poor is that large corporations have too much power and that the middle class is being squeezed.
Mr. Millwood, Ms. Kiser’s partner, said that he was concerned that society had grown more unequal in recent years, and that he didn’t see Mr. Biden doing much about it.
“From what I see, it really doesn’t look like the working class is benefiting from many things recently,” said Mr. Millwood, who supports a higher federal minimum wage and is impatient with the bickering and finger pointing he hears about in Washington.
After the phone conversation ended, Mr. Millwood texted to say that upon reflection, he would also like to see Mr. Biden push to lower taxes for low-income families and make it more difficult for the wealthiest to dodge them. After being sent news articles about Mr. Biden’s support for the extension of the now-expired Child Tax Credit and the appropriation of $80 billion for the Internal Revenue Service, in part to pursue tax evaders, he seemed surprised.
“That is absolutely what I had in mind,” Mr. Millwood texted. “It’s been so noisy in the media lately I haven’t seen much that is covering things like that,” adding, “Biden doesn’t seem so bad after all haha.”
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