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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Even most Biden voters don’t see a thriving economy


From left, Lawson Millwood and MacKenzie Kiser at their home in Clermont, Ga., on Nov. 19, 2023.

By Lydia DePillis


Presidents seeking a second term have often found the public’s perception of the economy a pivotal issue. It was a boon to Ronald Reagan; it helped usher Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush out of the White House.


Now, as President Joe Biden looks toward a reelection campaign, there are warning signals on that front: With overall consumer sentiment at a low ebb despite solid economic data, even Democrats who supported Biden in 2020 say they’re not impressed with the economy.


In a recent New York Times/Siena College poll of voters in six battleground states, 62% of those voters think the economy is only “fair” or “poor” (compared with 97% for those who voted for Donald Trump).


The demographics of Biden’s 2020 supporters may explain part of his challenge now: They were on balance younger, had lower incomes and were more racially diverse than Trump’s. Those groups tend to be hit hardest by inflation, which has yet to return to 2020 levels, and high interest rates, which have frustrated first-time homebuyers and drained the finances of those dependent on credit.


But if the election were held today, and the options were Biden and Trump, it’s not clear whether voter perceptions of the economy would tip the balance.


“The last midterm was an abortion election,” said Joshua Doss, an analyst at the public opinion research firm HIT Strategies, referring to the 2022 voting that followed the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling. “Most of the time elections are about ‘it’s the economy, stupid.’ Republicans lost that because of Roe. So we’re definitely in uncharted territory.”


There are things working in Biden’s favor. First, Doss said, economic programs enacted under the Biden administration remain broadly popular, providing a political foundation for Biden to build on. And second, social issues, which lifted Democrats in the midterms, remain a prominent concern.


Take Oscar Nuñez, 27, a server at a restaurant in Las Vegas. Foot traffic has been much slower than usual for this time of year, eating into his tips. He’d like to start his own business, but with the rising cost of living, he and his wife — who works at home answering questions from independent contractors for her employer — haven’t managed to save much money. It’s also a tough jump to make when the economy feels shaky.


Nuñez expected better from Biden when he voted blue in 2020, he said, but he wasn’t sure what specifically the president should have done better. And he is pretty sure another Trump term would be a disaster.


“I’d prefer another option, but it seems like it will once again be my only option again,” Nuñez said of Biden. For him, immigrants’ rights and foreign policy concerns are more important. “That’s why I was picking him over Trump in the first place — because this guy’s going to do something that’s real dangerous at some point.”


Nuñez isn’t alone in feeling dissatisfied with the economy but still bound to Biden by other priorities. Of those surveyed in the six battleground states who plan to vote for Biden in 2024, 47% say social issues are more important to them, while 42% say the economy is more important — but that’s a closer split than in the 2022 midterms, in which social issues decisively outweighed economic concerns among Democratic voters in several swing states. (Among likely Trump voters, 71% say they are most focused on the economy, while 15% favor social issues.)


Dour sentiment about the economy also isn’t limited to people who’ve been frustrated in their financial ambitions.


Mackenzie Kiser, 20, and Lawson Millwood, 21, students at the University of North Georgia, managed to buy a house this year. Millwood’s income as an information-technology systems administrator at the university was enough to qualify, and they worried that affordability would only worsen if they waited because of rising interest rates and prices. Still, the experience left a bitter taste.


“The housing market is absolutely insane,” said Kiser, who wasn’t old enough to vote in 2020 but leans progressive. “We paid the same for our one-story, one-bedroom cinder-block 1950s house as my mom paid for her three-story, four-bedroom house less than a decade ago.”


Generally, voters don’t think Republicans are fixing the economy, either. In a poll conducted this month by progressive-leaning Navigator Research, 70% of voters in battleground House districts, including a majority of Republicans, said they thought Republicans were more focused on issues other than the economy.


The health of the economy is still a major variable leading up to the election. A downturn could fray what the president cites as a signal accomplishment of Bidenomics: low unemployment. A study of the 2016 election found that higher localized unemployment made Black voters, an overwhelmingly Democratic constituency, less likely to vote at all.


“I think the likelihood that they would choose Trump is not the threat,” Doss said. “The threat is that they would choose the couch and stay home, and enough of them would stay home for an Electoral College win for Trump.”


But in the absence of a competitive Democratic primary, the campaigning — and television spots — have yet to commence in earnest. When they do, Doss has some ideas.


So far, Biden’s messaging has focused on macroeconomic indicators such as the unemployment rate and tackling inflation. “The truth is, that’s not the economy to most people,” Doss said. “The economy to most people is gas prices and food and whether or not they can afford to throw a birthday party for their kid.”


It’s difficult for presidents to directly control inflation in the short term. But the White House has addressed a few specific costs that matter for families, for example, by releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to contain surging oil prices in late 2022. The Inflation Reduction Act reduced prescription drug prices under Medicare and capped the cost of insulin for people with diabetes. The administration is also going after what it calls “junk fees,” which inflate the prices of things such as concert tickets, airline tickets and even birthday parties.


The more the administration talks about its concrete efforts to lower prices, the more Biden will benefit, Doss said. At the same time, Biden can lessen the blowback from persistent inflation by deflecting blame — an out-of-control pandemic was the original cause, he could plausibly argue, and most other wealthy countries are worse off.


A frequent theme of conversations with Democratic voters who see the economy as poor is that large corporations have too much power and that the middle class is being squeezed.


Millwood, Kiser’s partner, said he was concerned that society had grown more unequal in recent years, and said he didn’t see Biden doing much about it.


“From what I see, it really doesn’t look like the working class is benefiting from many things recently,” said Millwood, who supports a higher federal minimum wage and is impatient with the bickering and finger-pointing he hears about in Washington.


After the phone conversation ended, Millwood texted to say that upon reflection, he would also like to see Biden push to lower taxes for low-income families and make it more difficult for the wealthiest to dodge them. After being sent news articles about Biden’s support for the extension of the now-expired Child Tax Credit and the appropriation of $80 billion for the Internal Revenue Service, in part to pursue tax evaders, he seemed surprised.


“That is absolutely what I had in mind,” Millwood texted. “It’s been so noisy in the media lately I haven’t seen much that is covering things like that,” adding, “Biden doesn’t seem so bad after all haha.”

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