clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A booming economy might not save the Biden campaign

Americans are feeling better about the economy, yet the president’s approval rating is lower than ever.

President Biden standing in a factory in Milwaukee in front of a banner reading “Bidenomics: Investing in America.”
President Biden delivering remarks on Bidenomics in Milwaukee.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The US economy has long displayed many signs of objective strength. Wages have been rising faster than prices for nearly a year. Unemployment has been hovering near half-century lows for even longer. Consumer spending has been robust, while economic growth topped 5 percent in the third quarter of 2023, and 3.3 percent in the year’s final quarter.

Yet for almost all of last year, the public’s appraisal of the economy remained dour. In fact, even as most metrics of economic performance improved, consumer sentiment declined through the autumn. In the University of Michigan’s closely watched gauge of such sentiment, Americans grew more pessimistic about their financial lives, even as wages were rising faster than inflation.

But now: The vibes, they are a-changin’.

In December, consumer sentiment improved by 14 percent, before jumping an additional 13 percent in January. This constitutes the index’s largest two-month gain since 1991, and brings consumer sentiment back to levels unseen since July 2021, before inflation accelerated sharply.

This improvement in Americans’ subjective sense of the economy coincided with fresh objective testaments to its strength. In recent weeks, gas prices have fallen, retail sales have surged, and the stock market has reached a new all-time high.

And yet, over the same period, Joe Biden’s approval rating has barely budged. On November 29, Americans disapproved of the president’s job performance by a 15.9 percent margin, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. Two months of surging consumer sentiment later, Biden’s approval is now underwater by … 16.9 percent.

The president’s standing on the specific issue of the economy is similarly poor, and similarly unchanged. In October, an ABC News/Ipsos poll found that Americans disapproved of Biden’s economic management by a 25-point margin. The latest installment of that poll, released earlier this month, produced the exact same result. And its finding is not atypical. According to poll aggregator RealClearPolitics, recent surveys have on average found 59 percent of Americans disapprove of Biden’s handling of the economy while only 37 percent approve of it.

Most pertinently, Biden currently trails Donald Trump by an average of 3.8 percent in polls of a hypothetical 2024 presidential race.

For Democrats fretting over such grim data points, there has been consolation in the thought that an improving economy would eventually redound to the incumbent president’s benefit. And this remains a plausible source of optimism. After all, public opinion can lag behind economic performance. Just as it took months for the impact of rising real wages (i.e., wages adjusted for inflation) to appear in consumer sentiment data, so it may take a little while for improving sentiment about the Biden economy to translate into higher support for the man himself. Perhaps, as 2022’s bruising inflation recedes further into the past, and the Biden campaign’s paid advertisements inundate the airwaves, the president’s numbers will improve.

Yet the fact that Biden’s approval rating fell as the economic outlook brightened in 2023 — and has remained near historic lows, even as Americans have come to recognize the economy’s virtues — raises the possibility that an election year boom won’t ensure his reelection.

Here are four explanations for why Biden has yet to benefit politically from improving economic conditions — and, by extension, why further gains in Americans’ material well-being might not keep Trump out of the White House.

1) Across developed countries, voters still haven’t forgiven leaders who presided over the post-Covid surge in inflation

Compare Joe Biden’s approval rating to that of past presidents, and he looks unusually unpopular. But gauge his political standing against that of other contemporary leaders of major economies, and he appears relatively beloved.

According to Morning Consult’s tracker of global opinion polls, France’s Emmanuel Macron has a net approval rating of -44 percent; Germany’s Olaf Scholz has one of -56 percent; Canada’s Justin Trudeau’s sits at -25 percent; Britain’s Rishi Sunak’s lies at -36 percent; and Japan’s Fumio Kishida’s is a dismal -60 percent.

The only G-7 leader with a better approval rating than Joe Biden is Italy’s Giorgia Meloni. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that, as Matt Yglesias notes, Meloni’s party did not take power until October 2022, when prices were already rising at a historically fast clip. By contrast, every other incumbent party in the G-7 presided over the onset of post-Covid inflation.

Of course, every country has its idiosyncratic political dynamics. There are surely other reasons for Meloni’s (extremely relative) popularity. Nevertheless, it is a fact that every G-7 leader who held power when real wages began their historic and prolonged decline in 2021 now has an abysmal approval rating.

And the political struggles of major European leaders have persisted even as inflation has slowed across the continent, and consumer sentiment recovered. Indeed, unlike in the US, European consumer sentiment has long been on the rise, closely tracking improvements in objective economic conditions.

Yet this has not been sufficient to dramatically improve the political standing of Macron, Sunak, or Scholz.

Meanwhile, the general trend in recent elections across the developed world has been for incumbents to suffer rebukes at the polls. Since 2021, new leaders or governing coalitions have come to power in Italy, South Korea, Sweden, Bulgaria, New Zealand, Estonia, Poland, and Israel. Where incumbents have survived, electorates have often still evinced discontent. Although Macron secured reelection in April 2022, his party lost its legislative majority shortly thereafter, with the far-right National Rally party winning a record share of seats.

Thus, there is some basis for fearing that voters are disinclined to forgive parties that presided over the worst inflationary spike in more than four decades, even after price growth slows and consumer sentiment improves.

2) The US media landscape is tilted against Biden

Conservatives will surely bristle at this claim, given the anti-Trump tenor of much coverage from places like the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN.

Yet there is a fundamental asymmetry in the media diets of Democrats and Republicans. The former tend to trust, and seek out information from, formally independent and nonpartisan news outlets, while the latter almost exclusively trust conservative opinion journalism such as that produced by Fox News and right-wing talk radio. And although the Times and Post might subject Trump to withering scrutiny, they feel no obligation to boost Democrats’ political fortunes.

Of course, there are plenty of unabashedly left-of-center media outlets. And some of these do seek to boost narratives favorable for the Democratic Party. But Fox News is more consistently propagandistic than MSNBC and boasts a 42 percent larger viewership. Right-wing talk radio dwarfs the influence of progressive alternatives. Sinclair Broadcast Group — one of the largest owners of local TV news stations — is an ardently conservative family-owned firm that donates to the GOP and disseminates right-wing propaganda on its affiliate stations. And although the audience for Fox News and right-wing talk radio may consist largely of partisan Republicans, viewers of local evening news broadcasts are ideologically diverse.

Therefore, Trump has a much better apparatus for maintaining the approval and enthusiasm of his party’s voters, and for seeding politically favorable narratives, than Biden does.

During a Republican presidency, conservative media outlets generally do not elevate issues that are politically vexing for the GOP, or go out of their way to spotlight negative economic information. By contrast, when migrant crossings at the US southern border hit record highs, the New York Times was not going to ignore the issue merely because Biden has an interest in lowering its salience. Similarly, when financial analysts spent much of the past two years (incorrectly) foretelling an imminent recession, mainstream news outlets reported these warnings.

And while Fox News seeks to elevate the most unfavorable aspects of the Biden economy for political gain, some mainstream outlets and left-wing commentators affirm the same broad narrative, often, out of an aversion to complacency about the American economy’s structural injustices If it were Trump presiding over 5 percent growth, rising real wages, soaring stocks, and falling wage inequality, it is difficult to imagine popular, ostensibly rightwing pundits and social media influencers propagating the idea that the American economy is in a crisis or “silent depression.” But left-wing pundits and influencers have done precisely this in recent months.

To an extent, this reflects well on both mainstream and progressive media. Journalists should not be partisan propagandists. But these asymmetries in the media environment may help to explain the resilience of Biden’s unpopularity, even as economic conditions have improved.

3) Biden is vulnerable on issues besides the economy

In November, Democracy Corps, a Democratic consulting firm, polled 2,500 voters in battleground states and House districts. The pollsters asked voters whether they preferred “Biden and the Democrats” or “Trump and the Republicans” on 32 different issues. Democrats led on only six: women’s rights, climate change, health care, racial inequality, protecting democracy, and not letting the president become an autocrat. The party’s lead on those last two items was insignificant — a single point on protecting democracy, and two points on avoiding autocracy. Trump and the GOP, meanwhile, boasted double-digit leads on their capacity to “get things done for the American people,” make people feel safe, reduce crime, handle immigration, and ensure border security, among other issues. By smaller margins, voters had more faith in the GOP’s commitment to opposing “extremism” and protecting the Constitution.

It’s clear that inflation hasn’t been the only force depressing Biden’s poll numbers. Since October, he has had to contend with the Israel-Hamas war. And there is some evidence that the president’s support for Israel, amid massive civilian casualties in Gaza, has dented his approval with younger Democrats. Domestically, immigration appears to be hurting Biden with swing voters. A Harvard CAPS-Harris poll released this week found immigration overtaking inflation as American voters’ top concern. And polls have consistently found Republicans dominating on the issue. In a fall 2023 NBC News poll, voters favored Republicans over Democrats on immigration by 18 points, while a November survey from Marquette Law School found Trump besting Biden on border security by a 52 to 28 percent margin.

Discontent with growing numbers of migrants has emerged even in blue states. In a Siena College poll, 58 percent of New Yorkers said that their state had already done enough to help resettle immigrants and should seek to deter more arrivals.

An improving economy will do little to help Democrats with their immigration challenge. To the contrary, a strong economy with high demand for labor will tend to attract migrants. Allowing large numbers of these prospective immigrants to resettle and work here would make America more prosperous. But this is currently a tough sell to the US electorate.

4) Biden isn’t getting any younger

Finally, there’s the unavoidable fact that one of Biden’s chief liabilities is not going away, no matter how the economy fares: Polls routinely find that about 75 percent of US voters worry that their president is too old to serve a second term. Trump is also far into his golden years. But for whatever reason, his senescence inspires far less concern than the president’s.

All of this said, it is still plausible that an improving economy lifts Biden’s poll numbers in the coming months. As 2022’s real-wage declines become old news, and moderate voters are forced to stomach higher doses of Donald Trump, Biden’s 2020 coalition may reassemble. Fears of authoritarianism could mobilize college-educated suburbanites, while wage gains win over blue-collar workers, and disgust with Trump’s bigotry brings disillusioned progressives back into the fold.

But existing data suggests that this can’t be taken as a given. For the moment, American voters are behaving as though it is not, in fact, “the economy, stupid.”

Update, January 25, 10:30 am ET: Updated to include economic growth numbers from Q4 2023.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.