Opinion | Why Americans aren’t giving Biden credit for a strong economy

The jobs numbers are so good that Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has refused to urge Oshkosh Corp. to use federal funds to build trucks in his home state. “It’s not like we don’t have enough jobs here in Wisconsin,” he said recently. “The biggest problem we have … right now is employers not being able to find enough workers.” The state’s unemployment rate is just 2.8 percent.

But what about inflation? Data released this week showed that the consumer price index rose by 7.5 percent year-on-year, an almost 40-year high. That sounds scary. And inflation is too high, partly caused by a too-large covid relief package. But the fears of ever-escalating prices are probably exaggerated. Year-over-year inflation rose to 7.5 percent but, as forecaster Mark Zandi notes, the increase is only from an extremely low base of 1.4 percent in January 2021. The monthly rate of 0.6 percent is much lower than in October. Crucially, according to calculations from the Center for American Progress, Americans’ disposable incomes were higher in 2021 — even adjusting for inflation.

And yet, American consumer confidence is at a decade-low. A Gallup poll in January found that 82 percent of Americans felt the country was on the wrong track. Joe Biden has the lowest approval ratings for this point in his presidency than any modern president other than Donald Trump. A number of commentators chalk this up to the coronavirus effect. “When life stinks, the president’s job-approval numbers are low,” writes New York magazine’s Ed Kilgore. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman points out that, by historical standards, inflation is not all that high and wages are in good shape. He faults a media narrative, especially from right-wing media, that has put all the focus on inflation and not enough on jobs. As a result, he notes, Republicans believe the economy today is worse than in June 1980, a time when inflation was 14 percent and real wages were declining 6 percent a year!

The Times’s Nate Cohn makes a persuasive case that the timing of Biden’s falling numbers suggests two causes — the delta variant and the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Both happened in August 2021, which is when Biden’s numbers took a sharp dip and never fully recovered. Cohn’s larger point is that these twin problems made the Biden administration look incompetent. Life was getting messy, and the president who had promised normalcy, competence and a science-based solution to covid-19 was not delivering.

All of this makes sense. But I wonder whether there is a larger issue at play. People are not responding rationally to objective data right now. We are living in intensely polarized, partisan times. Questions about consumer confidence or about the country being on the right or wrong track are meant to get at people’s views of the world outside of politics. But nothing lies outside of politics anymore.

According to a Pew Research Center poll that shocked many, roughly half of all Republicans now say that Trump bears no responsibility for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, and that he likely won the 2020 election. But do they really believe that? I wonder whether they are answering a different question, one that goes something like this: “Will you join the mainstream media and the country’s urban elites in condemning Donald Trump?” Their answer is an emphatic no.

Intangible fears are today more important than objective facts. In one of the most careful scholarly analyses of the 2016 election, the University of Pennsylvania’s Diana C. Mutz explained in a paper that the data simply did not support the thesis that Trump was being supported by those who were economically “left behind” and had lost jobs or seen their wages stagnate. She writes, “Candidate preferences in 2016 reflected increasing anxiety among high-status groups. … Both growing domestic racial diversity and globalization contributed to a sense that white Americans are under siege by these engines of change.”

The most telling statistic is surely this: The United States — the world’s leader in science — has one of the lowest percentages of fully vaccinated adults in the industrialized world. That is because a large number of Americans would rather risk exposure to a deadly disease than accept diktats from so-called elites. That is the supreme example of the triumph of cultural anxieties and class conflict over facts, data or even one’s own well-being.


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