Democrats are faced with a sticky problem: The economy is nearing full employment after businesses added 210,000 jobs in November, labor force participation climbed to its highest level since the pandemic and wages are rising across many industries. Yet most voters are increasingly pessimistic about President Biden’s economic stewardship.
“I’m not exactly sure why what’s happening isn’t being characterized as a booming recovery from a worldwide shutdown,” Hawaii Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzNew Mexico Democrat tests positive for COVID-19 breakthrough case Warner tests positive for breakthrough COVID-19 case Forced deadline spurs drastic tactic in Congress MORE (D) mused in a tweet last month. The answer involves a bit of Democratic over-optimism and a whole lot of Republican messaging the Biden administration has been slow to counter.
Schatz is largely right: Under Biden, the American economy has recovered from its Trump-era lows with remarkable speed. Just a year ago, the unemployment rate sat stubbornly at 6.7 percent. Today, only 4.2 percent of Americans are out of work. Similar economic recoveries have normally taken three times as long. The Biden administration is delivering on the fastest sustained economic recovery in American history, yet its messaging struggles to tell that story.
More important for Democrats is that this isn’t a “paper recovery,” where unemployment rates fall because more Americans simply give up looking for work. Much to Democrats’ relief, the opposite is true for the Biden recovery. The labor force participation rate, the percentage of Americans 16 and older who are working or actively looking for work, just hit pre-pandemic levels. That’s a hugely reassuring development for analysts who initially feared the global pandemic would be a drag on the labor force rate for years to come.
But a surging economic recovery doesn’t mean that all is well for regular Americans, and if Democrats want to make jobs and the economy a 2022 campaign issue, they’ll need answers for some of the recovery’s potholes. Chief among them? Inflation.
A CNBC All-America Economic Survey released this week found that while Americans plan to spend 13 percent more this holiday season — great news Biden’s media surrogates should be shouting from — it also found that more Americans are concerned about rising inflation than about the pandemic. While that’s a promising sign that we’re moving forward from the coronavirus, Democrats are now faced with rising prices and unhappy consumers.
CNBC’s survey found 4 in 10 Americans are pessimistic about where the economy is headed, but it should concern the White House that 7 percent more Americans think the economy is getting worse today than did a year ago at the peak of the third coronavirus wave. Not only is that incorrect, it points to Democrats' biggest problem: a conservative media machine pumping out economic disinformation on a 24/7 production schedule.
Republicans want voters to think of their economic gains as temporary and the inflation pinch as permanent. They get the story exactly backwards. That hasn’t stopped some conservative outlets from crafting the bogus narrative that inflation is a result of Democratic spending priorities — not a side effect of an economy rapidly expanding after a year with its head held underwater. They also fail to mention that wages recently rose by the largest amount in two decades, and American workers will still be pocketing those gains when our post-coronavirus economic supercharge wears off and inflation drops back to regular levels.
If the conservative media’s framing is wrong, it’s also ruthlessly effective in scaring Democrats away from discussing all of the good happening in our economy since January. And like clockwork, skittish moderate Democrats are taking the GOP bait.
“We urge additional action by the House of Representatives to further address the disruptions and higher costs our constituents are experiencing,” a group of centrist House Democrats, including over a dozen in vulnerable 2022 races, wrote in a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week. If Democrats can’t get their economic messaging together to convince their own moderates, how do they intend to persuade voters?
At this point, only Biden has the bully pulpit necessary to contain the jitters overtaking his party’s lawmakers. Instead of focusing on the numbers, Biden should play to his strengths by connecting each element of the economic recovery to the stories and lived experiences of real Americans the recovery is helping.
It isn’t enough to quote charts at Americans who think the economy is worse than it was a year ago — Democrats must show them how the Biden administration has stewarded one of the most impressive economic turnarounds in recent memory. Biden’s knack for one-on-one connection is an asset to humanizing Democrats’ economic message, but only if the party has the courage to counter months of unchallenged Republican disinformation.
America’s rapid-fire economic recovery is a historic event. It’s time Democrats treated it like one worth celebrating.
Max Burns is a Democratic strategist and founder of Third Degree Strategies, a progressive communications firm. Follow him on Twitter @themaxburns.