Monday, July 15, 2024

Opinion | How Biden learned to stop apologizing and love the economy

Opinion | How Biden learned to stop apologizing and love the economy

Something has come over President Biden and his White House. Rather than talking about the economy in their usual tone of apology and nuance lest someone think they haven’t acknowledged the feelings of anyone who might be unhappy, the “Bidenomics” push has become positively triumphal.

The common Democratic impulse to make sure everyone’s pain is validated has been set aside, at least for now. Instead, through Biden’s speeches and a wave of media appearances by administration officials, the White House has gone on something of a victory tour. It’s as though Democrats have finally realized how to frame a debate: If you want the press to tell everyone how great the economy is, you have to start by saying the economy is great.

That doesn’t mean all Americans will immediately be persuaded. The media’s own skepticism remains, and news outlets will give Republicans ample time to continue claiming the economy is in desperate straits. But if nothing else, the idea that the economy is actually doing very well — how to judge that success, what produced it, how we might continue it — will move toward the center of the debate. Which means that debate will become very different from what it has been recently.

A robust argument is underway among wonky liberals about just how good the economy is right now and whether Biden’s approval on the economy deserves to be as low as it is. Meanwhile in the financial press, the default mode seems to be to present every piece of good news with a warning not to let it brighten your day. Each month’s report of job growth — and there have been an extraordinary 30 straight months of growth — is reported with headlines that say things like “Hundreds of thousands of jobs added, but recession fears loom.”

As Timothy Noah of the New Republic puts it, to the business press, “Bad news is self-evidently bad, and good news is bad because markets or regulators will overreact and spoil everything.” But look at the most commonly used economic indicators. Inflation has fallen to 4 percent, less than half what it was a year ago (and lower than in our peer countries). Unemployment is at just 3.6 percent. And on job growth, the results are nothing short of stunning.

The most common objection at this point is that the president has a limited influence on job growth. This raises complicated questions, but when has that ever stopped a president before? When Ronald Reagan was airing soft-focus ads touting “Morning in America” in 1984, unemployment was over 7 percent, and the American economy created a measly 5 million jobs during Reagan’s first term. Yet Biden has seen the creation of more than 13 million jobs in the past 2½ years. No president created that many over an entire four-year term, going back as far as government data exist, to the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

However much importance you attach to those numbers, they certainly give the administration a strong case to make for Biden’s economic stewardship. Yet his approval ratings on the economy remain absurdly low. There are a host of reasons for this, including polarization (when a Democrat is in the White House, almost no Republicans will tell pollsters things are going well) and possible lingering effects of inflation. But it’s vital to remember that how people are doing and how they think the country is doing are not the same thing. And their judgment of the latter comes in large part from the news media.

That’s why it’s possible for job satisfaction to be at its highest point in decades at the same time that poll respondents give the economy terrible ratings. I’m doing fine, many people seem to believe, but everyone else is struggling.

When it comes to awareness of “the economy,” people have very little to go on from their individual lives. The media tells us what’s happening in the country as a whole. And for much of Biden’s term, the debate in the media has pitted Republicans saying that we’re living through an economic catastrophe against Biden and his allies saying, A lot of people are suffering out there, we know it’s bad, but we’re making progress.

Their fear of being seen as out of touch — or their fear of being scolded by participants in an elite debate that is invisible to most of the electorate — led them into the same kind of defensive crouch that characterizes Democrats on issues such as crime. Democrats have long believed that nothing would be worse than failing to acknowledge whatever pain people are feeling.

The trouble with that is you end up talking a lot about what’s bad, which only reinforces your opponents’ claim that everything is bad.

There’s a communication theory called “indexing,” which holds that journalists frame debates around what key political figures say. If none of them are saying “things are great,” then the idea that things are great doesn’t make it into the discussion.

Yes, there are persistent problems of inequality and poverty — and we should explore and understand them. But it appears that the president and his administration have finally decided it’s not their job to keep reminding us of everything about the economy that could be better. It’s remarkable it took them so long.

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