Joe Biden has great economic news. Why can’t Americans hear it?


WASHINGTON—At the White House on Friday, there was a contrast between the gist of the message and the attitude of the messenger.

When US President Joe Biden spoke about the latest employment figures, his words were almost reminiscent of his predecessor’s incessant boasting. “Our recovery has now created 7.9 million jobs – more jobs created in the first 14 months of any presidency, regardless of term,” he said.

He went on to boast of “the fastest drop in unemployment to begin a presidential term on record.” He said: “There have only been three months in the last 50 years when the unemployment rate in America is lower than it is now.”

Clearly, that was good news – the next few months of encouraging updates on US jobs and wages. And yet, the president’s performance was not what you would call a celebration. It wasn’t gloomy either, but there seemed to be a resigned tone to Biden’s remarks.

If you weren’t already aware of the context, the lack of high-fives and broad smiles might have seemed odd. After all, for decades, since a Clinton campaign staffer used the phrase, political fortunes in the United States have risen and fallen on the mantra “it’s the economy, stupid”. One would think that entering a midterm election season with his opponents fighting about cocaine and orgiesand a survey of its daily headline-grabbing predecessor, which is essentially full employment and surprisingly high wage gains – especially among low-income jobs in hospitality and retail – would result in a lap of honour.

But the economy is not just about jobs.

Right now, Americans are worried about inflation. The wages in the new jobs report rose 5.6% from a year ago, not quite keeping pace with the 7.9% year-over-year rise in consumer prices reported last month.

You can attribute some of that to forces beyond Biden’s control — he again highlighted on Friday, as he has in the past, the global energy price hikes caused by the invasion of China. Ukraine by Russia, which added to the rumbles of global supply chains caused by the pandemic. But many also believe the stimulus money Biden poured into the economy during his first year in office contributed to inflation.

What factors do you attribute inflation to – and by how much – doesn’t that make a big difference to Americans’ attitude to the sticker shock at gas pumps, where a gallon of gas costs one average of $4.21 (US) per gallon (about $1.39 per liter in Canada). It is still cheaper than gas in Torontobut topping the $4-a-gallon threshold is psychologically significant for Americans and represents a 46% increase from a year ago.

Not only do most people fill up their gas tanks weekly or bi-weekly, but they pass giant illuminated signs at every gas station – so virtually every suburban street corner – and signs for billboards along highways announcing high prices every day.

On Thursday, Biden announced he would release one million barrels of oil a day from the US reserve in a bid to reduce energy price inflation. On Friday, Biden pointed to the move, alongside his efforts to cut the deficit, as proof he is fighting inflation. He has tried to demonstrate that commitment in other ways since last month’s State of the Union address, where he outlined a list of measures to address the issue.

But voters aren’t always interested in giving credence to problem-solving attempts. As long as they see higher price tags, the guy in the Oval Office is likely to take a lot of the blame. And Biden is: As of Friday, his approval rating in the FiveThirtyEight.com public opinion poll average was 41.1% – just one point higher than Donald Trump’s rating at the same time in his term, and lower than that of every other president dating back to the 1940s.

“Record job creation. Record unemployment is falling. Record wage gains,” Biden said Friday. Rather than jubilant, he looked almost plaintive. Defensive. “Employment and unemployment are not just another statistic. They go straight to the heart of what economics is all about: the ability for hard-working Americans to live with dignity, provide for their families, and build a better life for their children.

But people are concerned about another measure of the economy. Famously, the buck stops with the president’s desk, and right now many Americans are less focused on how many dollars they have than how much those dollars will buy.

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