Jan 14, 2024 - Politics & Policy
Axios Vibes

Biden's challenge: Convince voters this isn't the economy they think it is

Illustration of a wallet full of dollar, an up and down bar graph, and annoyed emoji faces

Illustration: AΓ―da Amer/Axios

President Biden will spend the next 1o months trying to convince voters to trust their wallets about the state of the economy β€” while acknowledging their persistent concerns about high prices.

Why it matters: Biden's bid for re-election could hinge on whether he can walk that tightrope.

Zoom in: Poll after poll shows that the country is bummed out by the economy. Voters blame Biden.

  • Nearly four in 10 Americans rate their financial situation as poor, according to a new Axios Vibes survey by The Harris Poll.
  • In the language of our new Vibes series β€” which taps into the depth of Americans' feelings β€” those surveyed feel πŸ˜’ about jobs and the economy.

Inside the White House, patience is the watchword.

  • Biden's team is more annoyed than angered by criticism from fellow Democrats such as David Axelrod, who called a December Wall Street Journal poll "very, very dark."
  • Don't look at the polls, Biden's top advisers say. Look at the economic fundamentals.
  • Unemployment is below 4%. GDP growth was above was above 5% in the third quarter. Annual inflation is at 3.4%, down from its 9.1% high in 2022.
  • Those numbers are better β€” or comparable β€” to the last four presidents who successfully ran for re-election, according to an internal White House analysis.

What they're saying: "It does take consumers a while to kind of see data consistently, and see prices that have actually come down, to feel really confident about them," Lael Brainard, the chair of the National Economic Council, told Axios.

  • That's economist-speak for: "Give us time."
  • A new Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll suggests that public opinion about the economy might be improving. In January, 29% of voters said the economy was in recovery, compared to 21% in October 2023, according to the poll.

Zoom out: The White House's argument β€” that voters actually like the economy much more than they're willing to admit β€” is bolstered by most of the official data.

  • From healthy consumer spending, to record new business applications and even to boat purchases, actions are speaking louder than words, and voters appear to be more confident than they are telling pollsters.
  • "If you really want to understand how people feel about the economy, look what they're doing β€” not what they're saying," said Ben Harris, a former top economist at the Treasury Department who's now at the Brookings Institution.
  • "It is very clear that consumers are spending, and there's nothing in the spending data that looks like anyone's upset about anything," said Jason Furman, a Harvard professor and a former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.
  • "That is unambiguously true."

Between the lines: There's one economic reading that remains stubbornly low: consumer sentiment, as measured by the University of Michigan's monthly survey.

  • It's inching upward, indicating that consumers are feeling better about the economy. But the last reading β€” 69.7 β€” is well below the pre-pandemic high of 111.4. In 2022, it dropped to 50, which was lower than during the Great Recession of 2008-09.
  • The disconnect between the economic data and public opinion numbers has led to the "vibes vs. data" debate β€” and even one high-profile household argument.

Many Democrats are convinced that Biden's bad economic poll numbers stem from doom and gloom media coverage, which is then spread and amplified by social media. Everyone ends up feeling lousy.

  • Some economists also argue that Republicans tend to be more sour about a Democratic president's economy than vice-versa, skewing the consumer sentiment numbers.

The other side: "This is much less of a mystery than everybody's making it out to be," Michael Strain, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told Axios.

  • "The answer is that people don't like inflation."
  • A bag of groceries that cost $100 before the pandemic now sets a shopper back $126, according to Axios’ Neil Irwin.

What we're hearing: In White House debates over how to talk about the economy, Biden himself has always insisted that he needs to address the struggles that some Americans face. That won't change in 2024.

  • "We want to make sure that we are acknowledging the reality of the people he's meeting with," Brainard said.

What we're watching: While acknowledging inflation, Biden will try to channel some of the voters' anger away from the White House.

  • For much of 2022, he blamed "Putin's price hike" for high gas prices. In 2024, the target is corporate greed.

The bottom line: For Biden to make Americans less grumpy about the economy, he needs two things: an economy that keeps humming and sticks the soft landing β€” and time.

  • He doesn't have much of the latter.
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