Why are voters so unhappy?
All across the left-leaning political coalition, in one way or another, there is a tough discussion about the economy, Biden, and credit. Macroeconomic indicators say that the economy is in great shape. Wages are outpacing inflation, which is slowing; spending is up and growth is steady, and unemployment is still around historic lows. But voters are unhappy anyway.
Many of us feel like the economy as a whole isn’t working. For some people, that’s tied to their personal finances; for others, it’s a sense of unease about whether they can afford to keep what they have, and for still more, the deluge of bad headlines and worse vibes makes for a negative outlook. No matter what the reason, voters aren’t giving Biden anything for stepping into the disaster of the COVID economy and piloting us to steadier seas.
And I’m going to argue that we shouldn’t. Not because he doesn’t deserve credit, but because we deserve more.
Biden’s economic work has been great, relative to what he inherited. Republicans used the COVID emergencies to treat the government like a slush fund for themselves and their rich friends, and Trump was at the front of the line for that. There was relatively little care put into COVID relief infrastructure, and the damage done by the pandemic was widespread and catastrophic. Biden did right the ship. He brought us out of the depths. He did put us on the path to recovery, and he did so when his opponent would have done less and supported nothing.
Where I disagree with Biden, his boosters, and his administration, is that this was enough. And I don’t think I’m alone.
The economy has never really felt right since 2008, when billions of real investments and value went up in smoke from the self-dealing machinations of an unfettered capital market, operating on the principle of infinite growth. We chastised the culprits and wrote up new rules. But we didn’t shut down the behavior. Instead, we opened a huge money tap with low-interest rates, feeding a frenzy of lavish investments with the belief that the bill for big swings and big misses would never come due.
The result has been an explosion of scams, big and small, from money laundering crypto exchanges to real estate speculation to sci-fi concepts lacking in either function or use. At the same time, real people have been shunted into the gig economy, hustle culture, deeply exploitative underemployment at jobs that are below their skills and their worth, or some miserable combination of the three. And the markers of financial safety—savings, home ownership, a healthy debt to income ratio—became closer to pipe dreams.
Biden claiming credit for returning us to the economy of the 2010s is not a winning message for anyone. While the pandemic wrecked the traditional notion of the economy, it’s worth mentioning that all levels of poverty declined during the relief effort, including a massive drop in impoverished children. Labor emerged stronger, with major wage gains and increased bargaining rights. People who had invested in their education could actually use the benefits of that work to care for themselves instead of paying back onerous loans. We shouldn’t be aiming for where the economy was; we should be targeting its improvement.
So my argument to Biden boosters is this: Don’t talk about what the President has achieved as much as where we’re going next. We’re on a trajectory for an economy that works for a much broader range of people—but only if we keep going. It took a tremendous amount of work to get inflation down and employment up, but now we want every job to be a good one. It’s impressive that we have worked our way up from the bottom of where Trump left us, but it will be incredible when we make sure we can never fall that low again.
In my view, Biden and his team are too focused on bullying people into acceptance instead of finding use for our dissatisfaction, and it’s hurting them politically. If we don’t agree that the economy is great, the answer is not to yell at us louder, question our comprehension, or tell us that we’re gullible fools. Instead, they should frame the work it took to get us here as the beginning of our economic transformation rather than the satisfying end point, and I think a lot of people will buy in. As a voter, I know I would much rather believe that we can do better than accept that where we are now economically is enough.