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Is Joe Biden gaslighting America? The US economy is booming — but voters aren't feeling richer

Life is not looking up. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Life is not looking up. Spencer Platt/Getty Images


April 11, 2024   6 mins

When it comes to winning a US election, is the answer still “It’s the economy, stupid”? The phrase, memorably articulated by Bill Clinton’s advisor James Carville, suggests that how Americans feel about their personal finances will determine the election outcome. If this remains the case, President Joe Biden is in trouble.

The Biden campaign constantly reminds Americans that the economy is on a tear, with inflation falling, unemployment near record lows and GDP expanding faster than any other advanced economy. But when economists and politicians cite such figures or talk up soaring stock indices as indicators of economic health, it hardly registers with the average person. Only about a tenth of Americans read a daily newspaper, and nearly half never read one at all. Fewer than a quarter watch television news.

As a result, most citizens judge the state of the nation and the economy from what they observe in their own daily lives: how much they pay to refuel their car; what their grocery bill comes to; whether their credit balances rise or fall at the end of each month; how often they can afford to dine out or go to concerts. They also take into account the number of boarded-up shops or alternatively, new restaurants in their community — and consider how far they need to drive to reach the nearest bank or post office.

Herein lies Biden’s problem. The average American feels worse off today than they did on the eve of the 2020 election, with polls showing that nearly twice as many people think Donald Trump did a good job on the economy than Biden. They’re not imagining it, either. Gas prices, which never broke above $3 per gallon during the Trump years, are now approaching $4 per gallon. Average take-home pay rose nearly twice as fast as the cost of food away from home under Trump, enabling Americans to dine out more often. But since Biden took office, Americans have had to tighten their belts, with their wages failing to match the sharply rising cost of eating out. In fact, for most of Donald Trump’s presidency, inflation was dormant and real wages were rising. Had it not been for the pandemic, which tanked the economy and unleashed some of Trump’s worst buffoonery, Trump might have won the 2020 election.

While the headlines speak of an American economic renaissance, the stories that people tell one another have a very different tone. Yes, the economy is outperforming all its peers, a revolution is underway in high tech, and a huge rollout of renewable energy is creating loads of jobs. But, in the bitterest of ironies, the boom skews towards Republican states, which already dislike Biden, and favours big cities over smaller towns. If your bank branch has closed or your favourite diner has gone out of business, hearing things are roaring in Austin won’t matter much to you. To use the starkest current example, when the Fed and White House talk of inflation falling back down, they simply mean prices are rising at a more measured pace. But for most people, falling inflation means falling prices — sales and discounts. And prices aren’t falling. So what is there to celebrate?

That said, real wages are rising, which will enable workers to gradually claw back their lost buying power. But that won’t happen soon. Using the Fed’s current measure of inflation, a dollar today buys 20% less than it did in 2020, so it would take years of real wage gains of 2%, which is about where they are now, to make back that lost ground. In any event, the Fed has changed the way it measures inflation. Had it still been using the method it used in the early Eighties, during the last big surge in prices, inflation today would be nearly triple what is currently being reported.

Despite all their talk about the booming economy, America’s leaders can’t deny that their compatriots feel noticeably poorer today than they did four years ago. If the November election comes down to a referendum on the economy, Biden looks sunk. His only hope is to tell a story persuading people that while the present is difficult, the future under him will get brighter: not an impossible task, but a tough one.

“Americans feel noticeably poorer today than they did four years ago.”

But perhaps the economy has lost its political significance. There is, in fact, growing evidence that the rules of American politics are changing, and that if economics was ever the dominant mover of voting behaviour, it may not be now. Instead, cultural and existential matters have risen to the fore. The straight economic division that once seemed to prevail in America — that owners vote Republican and workers vote Democrat — has waned.

In its place, new alignments are emerging. As a starting point, one can use the rough rule of thumb that the cities lean Democrat, towns and rural areas vote Republican, and the suburbs remain up for grabs. But within that framework, old loyalties are shifting. African Americans once voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, providing a third of the party’s total support. Hispanic Americans, if less monolithically, did likewise. But in both groups Republicans have been making inroads, particularly among men.

Women, on the other hand, who were once a strong conservative force, have grown more liberal. But perhaps the biggest flipped script of all is the working class. Once a reliable pool of votes for the Democrats, the white working class in particular has broken increasingly Republican — not because Republicans speak to their economic concerns, but because socially conservative workers find the Democratic party increasingly too “woke”.

More than 40 years ago, Ronald Inglehart argued that Western societies were becoming so prosperous that bread-and-butter issues would dominate politics less, as people began orienting their politics around what he called post-materialist values. Perhaps he was right, as Americans turn their attention from pocketbook issues to forms of self-actualisation, focusing on what kind of country they want to live in. In this universe, what Trump and Biden represent could end up mattering more than their economic policies.

However, something a little darker may be going on. It may be that Americans see their country’s current moment in the sun as fleeting, dependent on a mortgaged future — and so have concluded that what is at stake is the remains of a declining empire. In that case, the fight may be over what is left after the tide goes out. Politics, formerly a positive-sum game in which everybody got a bit of something, has now turned into a zero-sum game, in which every group believes its gains must come at the expense of another. Thus, with battle lines drawn, the middle ground withers into a no-man’s land.

In this battlefield, Biden has planted his flag as a friend of the working man against corporate power. For years, Democrats have attracted growing scorn over their elitism and dismissive attitudes to common folk. However, Biden has made it his mission to restore the party’s working-class traditions. The unions seem willing to campaign for him with a vigour they perhaps haven’t shown in a good while. If Biden can stem even some of the party’s working-class erosion, he could make an important dent in the Republican constituency: in 2020, he lost the working-class vote to Trump by a margin of 8%, and the white working class by 32%. Assuming he can hold his core constituency among university-educated Americans, and especially among educated women fired up by Republican campaigns against abortion rights, Biden would only need to claw back a small share of this bloc to retain the White House.

Trump, by contrast, isn’t trying to win over fresh pastures. As the November doomsday approaches, he is increasingly making the election not about his followers or the economy — but about himself. Railing against his enemies, vowing revenge, he speaks less about how he will rebuild their communities and restore their pride than he does about his victimhood. No matter how much his followers might sympathise with him, they may not see how any of this will affect their own lives. Perhaps for that reason, if reports from his rallies are to be believed, the enthusiasm he evoked eight years ago appears to be waning.

It’s early days, but a harbinger of what is to come may lie in the polls and betting markets. Before the campaign became a two-man race last month, both showed Biden’s outlook to be grim. But since the two men locked down their nominations, they have begun narrowing sharply. Trump is still in the lead — but it’s just possible that Biden turns out to be a better finisher. To do that, however, he will need to scrap grand rhetoric to tap into the bread-and-butter concerns of ordinary Americans worried about the cost of living, the security of their jobs, and their opportunities for advancement. He must show how he can improve their lives at the most visceral level. As an indifferent communicator, that won’t be easy for him, though what he may have over Trump is an ability to convey empathy. Compassion may turn out to be his strongest asset.


John Rapley is an author and academic who divides his time between London, Johannesburg and Ottawa. His books include Why Empires Fall: Rome, America and the Future of the West (with Peter Heather, Penguin, 2023) and Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as a religion (Simon & Schuster, 2017).

jarapley

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J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago

Here’s my prediction for the election in November, and it’s going to get me massively downvoted: Biden will win by a decisive margin, although certainly not a landslide.
As the author notes, Trump is making the campaign about him rather than explicitly about the American people. That is perhaps not so bad for him as the author suggests. We can all see the lawfare, and mediafare, being waged against him, and many people view that as an attack on his supporters too: it’s the “elite” with a boot on the necks of the “deplorables”. And people resent that, and they recognize it’s fundamentally undemocratic. So Trump’s troubles will, to an extent, help him at the polls.
But I would suggest the main reason the Dems are likely to win is because they’re better organized than the Republicans. Just before the midterms we were informed a “red wave” was forming that would give Republicans control of both houses of Congress. Never materialized and I wasn’t surprised. I was bombarded with messages from the Dems right up to the midterm elections; hardly a peep from the Republicans. Sadly, the Republicans are too busy in-fighting to effectively fight a general election, imo.
Hopefully I’m wrong, but I suspect not. I have no idea what another four years of Biden will do to our country.

T Bone
T Bone
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

If you look deeper at how they’re calculating the Jobs numbers, the Economy looks like a Potemkin Village. Look at the amount of government and part time jobs making up the totals.

That said, I agree with you. I can’t see Trump winning a mail-in ballot competition against a highly organized political machine campaigning on abortion.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 month ago
Reply to  T Bone

I can’t see any party or candidate winning against the leviathan that has captured virtually all our institutions. Perhaps America needs to experience totalitarianism firsthand before coming to its senses.

Saul D
Saul D
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Democrats are very, very good at elections. They also have many more billionaire backers, a huge war-chest of funds through PACs, and a thoroughly compliant media to call on, and a large, disciplined, trained and focused ground crew to direct, and the whole of Washington DC behind them.
Even though there is a lot of tub-thumping and grievance on the Republican-side, they remain a mess of an organisation, not least because of the establishment holdovers, but also because they lack capable political operators.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

If Biden does win how long do you think he will last? Another 4 years seems improbable.

Arthur King
Arthur King
1 month ago

The economy is not booming in Canada.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 month ago

This article is useless. Being a mingling of some half-way decent analysis with a heaping spoonful of partisan falsehoods and innuendo, the author is trying to sound wiser than he really is.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 month ago

Is this another one of those special magical talking points things where the powers that be just repeat the same load of crap over and over again hoping it will transform reality? Yeah, it sure looks that way on this end. Let’s try this again. If your wages are not able to keep up with the (not transitory) inflation, the economy sucks. If the job market is supposedly booming but good jobs are hard to come by and you know a lot of people who have checked out of the workforce entirely, the economy sucks. If you know young people who are still living with their parents even when they have a job because renting or buying is too expensive, the economy sucks. Want me to get into any of the current issues with financial institutions, healthcare costs, being unable to even afford a basic vacation, old people working until well past retirement, deindustrialization or any other of the myriad of things normal b***h to each other about when they are at work grabbing coffee or paying the bills?

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Quite.

People feel – rightly- that they’re worse off whilst the media talking points tell them how fabulous the Emperor’s new set of clothes are 
. And those cool aviators, man.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
1 month ago

But the economy isn’t booming. There’s little point in trying to convince someone that they’re benefitting from the Stock Market gaining, when they’re struggling to meet their bills.

Inflation has hit consumers hard and wage growth for the majority of blue collar America hasn’t come close to making up the shortfall.

Biden’s powerhouse economy is a chimera, a fiction

Biden, in 3 years has run up greater debt than any other President in history. Trump is responsible for a portion of it – but at least had Covid and the closing down of the whole US economy as an excuse. US National Debt currently stands at over $34 TRILLION – simply servicing that debt costs considerably more each year than is spent on defence.

By 2030 servicing that debt pile will cost 50c of every dollar raised in taxes. In 10 years, servicing that debt will cost more than the total tax take that’s currently raised. It is definitionally unsustainable, yet Biden continues to spend like a divorcee going out for one last spree on their soon-to-be-ex’s credit card.

Anyone who looks at that and imagines the economy has been well-managed is a fool.

As to Gas prices – Joe’s Green Agenda completely undermined America’s energy security and was the reason for the drastic hike in US gas prices – one of the biggest contributory factors for the inflation spiral.

Under Trump the US was entirely energy self-sufficient and receiving huge revenues from selling the excess.

Biden can’t run on his domestic record, and certainly can’t run on his foreign policies because his record cannot stand up to the merest scrutiny, thus he can only run on Fear of Trump. Fear is all he has.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Sadly, that fear might be enough. It’s not just the entirety of the Dems who oppose Trump, it’s a fair number of Repubs, too, which should make any curious person wonder.

David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
1 month ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Agreed, but the big missing part of this piece is, as George mentions below, interest rates are still out of whack. This has meant house prices are well out of reach for many would-be homebuyers, especially younger Americans — who really ought to be ready to vote against Biden, but will they?

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
1 month ago

Biden’s problem is the disconnect between the official data and the real economy. Many Fed metrics and models are being actively discredited as revisions become as frequent as the original publication dates. Shadowstats data tells us what’s going on, and whilst inflation is hard to identify, it’s as acutely felt as first love. So yes, attempted gaslighing, which won’t work. Does that mean Trump wins? Not necessarily. Biden will pull every stop out – liquidity spiggots still open, further student debt forgiveness in the offing, US oil/gas production put into super drive, much foreign policy driven by desire for low gas pump prices now the SPR is squandered, etc. Economic manipulation and bribery will sit alongside the upbeat narrative, and – of course – lawfare, mail-in ballot fraud, etc.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
1 month ago

.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 month ago

“The economy is booming” is the same as “crime is down”. Neither, of course, is true. It’s just the bullsh*t governments concoct when they change their grades from Fs to Bs and send their media minions off to give us the phony report card.

And everyone knows that Biden is a drugged-up demi-corpse with zero decision-making authority, so why not just say it: America is being run by committees of unelected Ivy League ignoramuses. Now, run along to San Francisco and steal your $950.00 a day worth of merchandise while stores remain open.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

Give me a break. Each “spectacular” jobs report is later revised downward, a lot of jobs are either part-time or in govt, and inflation remains persistent along with a sense of the other shoe dropping. Joe is lying, the press is parroting his lies, and the gullible accept them. “The stock market is doing great.” Sure, until it isn’t. When Warren Buffet has billions parked on the sidelines, what does he know? When JP Morgan’s CEO is selling stock by the boatload, what does he know?

George Venning
George Venning
1 month ago

The entire heft of this article is in that link about inflation.
For years, the Paul Krugmans of this world have been scolding people for not recognising what a great job Biden has been doing on the economy – essentially, wage growth is above inflation, you’re better off, why aren’t you slobs more grateful?
Except that as it turns out, inflation is miles above wage growth.
The link in the piece seems to go back to an article by that soft-hearted old lefty, Larry Summers, who points out that judgements about inflation are deeply subjective and that the measure you use matters. The difference between the old approach and the new, is that the former includes interest costs and the latter does not. Who knew that would turn out to be significant as we come off a decade of unprecedentedly low interest rates and ballooning personal debt levels?
The current approach to inflation excludes increases in mortgage costs and car payments. So, if you had a mortgage or a car loan or, (presumably) a student loan, your personal rate of inflation was probably better reflected in the old approach but, if you were debt free, it probably looks like the new one.
So, the economy is great if you exclude the things that account for, what, 30-40% of most working Americans’ household expenditure.
It isn’t that Trump is remotely better on this stuff but he lacks the Democrats’ habit of pissing down the nation’s back, telling it that it’s raining and expecting to be thanked for it. Good chance that will be enough I reckon.

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
1 month ago

Only ten percent of Americans read a daily paper. Even fewer use a horse and buggy to get to work.

Arthur G
Arthur G
1 month ago
Reply to  Bryan Dale

Pretty sure they include those who read online.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago

No matter how much his followers might sympathise with him, they may not see how any of this will affect their own lives. 

Unless, of course, his followers want their revenge too on all the people who have regarded them as ‘deplorables’ and sneered at their concerns.

Francis Twyman
Francis Twyman
1 month ago

I wonder if the economy will still be “booming” when the US national debt reaches about 50 trillion by 2030, it’s a continuation of the debt bubble, is it really sustainable? I suppose it’s booming for some people who are benefiting from the massive deficits, but all this deficit spending of course is inflationary, no wonder the average worker feels no progress, the giant ponzi scheme continues to increase the massive inequalities, and will continue until the great debt bubble bursts. When it does, the average person will of course pay the price again, as the rich run for cover. The system is rigged folks, and will continue to be rigged

Ben H
Ben H
1 month ago

This article fail to mention that immigration is now the number one concern for Americans. This is an issue that the Republicans own and everyone knows that they take it more seriously than the current administration.

Christopher
Christopher
7 days ago

One problem. Biden is not running. It’s the forth term of Obama running against Trump and Americans have had enough woke , AntiAmerican leftism.