The Memo: Bad economic news haunts Democrats ahead of midterms

President Biden and other Democrats are confronting a stark truth — they’re getting blamed for what’s bad in the economy and getting no credit for what’s good.

The dynamic could spell electoral doom in November.

The Democrats’ failure to get voters to recognize the upside of the economy is not for lack of trying.

On Thursday, fresh data showed new unemployment claims at their lowest level since modern records began in 1968. The president responded with a statement in which he noted that almost 8 million jobs had been created since he took office — “more jobs created on average per month than under any other president in history,” he said.

Later the same day, in a speech to construction unions, Biden noted the sharp decline in the unemployment rate during his tenure — from 6.4 percent in January 2021 to 3.6 percent now — as well as the big recovery in U.S. gross domestic product last year.

None of it is making much of a dent in public opinion.

An NBC News survey late last month found a huge 63 percent of the population disapproving of Biden’s handling of the economy and just 33 percent approving. 

An Economist-YouGov poll this week asked people how they viewed the state of the economy. 

Just 1 in 4 said it was either “excellent” or “good.” Twenty-seven percent rated the economy as only “fair,” and 42 percent said it was “poor.”

The clear culprit is inflation.

The inflation rate hit 7.9 percent in the latest figures, which cover February, the highest level seen since 1982.

The most obvious manifestation of rampaging inflation is high gas prices, which have been exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

But inflation is affecting virtually everything, including the price of food. Then there are knock-on effects, such as mortgage rates that have risen sharply, making it harder for people to buy homes.

The visceral way in which inflation is felt is blocking out the other, more positive economic news, and the fear is palpable among Democrats as they look toward November

Inflation is “noticeable because people know if they are paying more than they did last time they were at the grocery store or at the gas station,” said Democratic strategist and ad-maker Bill Carrick. 

By contrast, Carrick noted, a strong job market is not felt so universally, being relevant mainly to people who are seeking a job or to employers. He suggested that when people do find a job, they are more likely to credit their own endeavors than the government — a stark difference to how they view inflation or gas prices.

“It’s a complex equation, job creation — certainly more so than the cost of a six-pack or a loaf of bread or a frozen pizza,” he said. When people get a new job “it tends to be highly personalized — they did it on their own initiative, their sister-in-law told them there was a job someplace or whatever. They don’t see it so much as a macroeconomic issue.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are tightening the screws on Biden’s economic record. 

“Biden and the Democrats created 40-year high inflation, record-setting gas prices, and an economy leaving too many behind. Democrats will pay the price for their reckless spending agenda in November,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a Friday statement.

Concerns are growing that those attacks are effective.

Voices across the Democratic spectrum, from centrists to progressives, worry that their problems are compounded by two other factors.

One is general public irritability after more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. The other is Democratic infighting that limited progress in other areas, most prominently the party’s prolonged, failed attempt to pass Biden’s expansive “Build Back Better” agenda.

“The pandemic has created this other reality, this sense of fear, the sense of things being out of control,” said progressive strategist Jonathan Tasini. 

He said those emotions, as well as the frustrations that have simmered for years about issues such as wealth equality and wage stagnation, have created a public mood that “clouds the actual practical realities of a good job market and other things that are quite positive.”

Keir Murray, a more centrist, Texas-based Democratic strategist, agreed about the impact of the pandemic on public sentiment.

But Murray also lamented the failed Build Back Better effort. There was, he said, “a lot of back-and-forth and hand-wringing over legislation that showed the public a kind of Democrat-on-Democrat violence rather than the traditional one-party-versus-the-other. That has damaged the president, and the party as well.”

Centrists argue the left pushed for too much during that period, but progressives such as Tasini shoot back that the single most prominent conservative Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), “handcuffed the party and dressed it up with a sense of failure by standing in the way of virtually everything that would make a difference to people.”

One way or another, the fighting over the legislation meant that even the successful passage of a huge infrastructure deal around the same time had a muted political impact.

Democrats insist that the coronavirus relief bill Biden passed more than a year ago still does not get due credit for having ameliorated the effects of the pandemic.

But they also know voters’ memories are short, and that the legislation in question, the American Rescue Plan, is a long way in the rearview mirror.

As if all that were not enough, the war in Ukraine is now commanding the lion’s share of public attention and exacerbating the very inflationary pressures that are causing Democrats such problems.

It’s a grim scenario for the president and his party. 

Democrats still hold out hope that things can turn around, but the chances of rebuffing a GOP wave in November seem to be getting smaller and smaller.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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