Tough questions if Biden’s endorsement doesn’t keep up with economy’s surge

President Joe Biden promotes domestic chip manufacturing at a new Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company plant in Phoenix, Arizona on Dec. 6, 2022. (Adriana Zehbrauskas/The New York Times)

President Joe Biden promotes domestic chip manufacturing at a new Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company plant in Phoenix, Arizona on Dec. 6, 2022. (Adriana Zehbrauskas/The New York Times)

Doesn’t it feel like everything is breaking President Joe Biden’s way lately?

His main rival — whom Biden already beat in 2020 and Democrats, in a sense, beat again midterm — is facing criminal charges and yet finds himself currently on his way to the nomination.

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The economy – which has hovered on the brink of recession for two years with inflation rising and real wages falling – appears to be on track for a soft landing, with inflation falling, real wages rising and the stock market recovering.

The backlash against the “wake-up call” — a topic Republicans seemed most eager to exploit in the Biden days — appears to have waned significantly, whether because Donald Trump has taken on much of the oxygen; the conservatives have gone too far; or the progressives curbed their excesses and retreated to defense after the conservatives went on the attack.

It’s probably too early to expect these recent developments to lift Biden’s approval ratings, which remain mired in the 1940s. But if these trends persist, many of the explanations for Biden’s low approval will quickly become less credible. If his numbers don’t start to budge over the next few months – with the wind apparently at his back – it will quickly begin to raise more serious questions about his position heading into the 2024 election.

At this point in his presidency, it has been fairly easy to attribute his low ratings to economic conditions. Yes, unemployment was low and growth remained stable. But inflation jumped, real incomes plummeted, stocks fell into a bear market, a recession seemed imminent, and voters could see signs of a struggling economy everywhere, including supply chain shortages and onerous interest rates.

It’s fair to wonder if economic conditions have been as bad as voters say they are, but it’s also fair to recognize that those kinds of conditions can make for a pessimistic voter. Two episodes of inflation reminiscent of today’s post-pandemic economy – the post-war economies of 1920 and 1946 – were catastrophic for the ruling party, even as unemployment remained low by the standards of the time.

Historically, it can seem like almost every major political upheaval has been accompanied by inflation, whether it’s the Great Troubles in Britain, the Red Summer in the United States, or even the hyperinflation of Weimar Germany. While it can be argued that high bread prices helped bring about the French Revolution, it’s easy to accept that 9% inflation (at its peak in June 2022) could hurt Biden’s approval rating by 5 or 10 percentage points.

But if inflation has been what’s holding Biden back, it’s hard to say it should be holding him back for too long. Annual inflation fell to 3% last month and real incomes finally started to rise. The stock market — one of the most visible and important measures of the economy for millions of Americans — is up about 15% in the past six months. The University of Michigan’s consumer confidence index jumped 13% in July, hitting the highest level since September 2021 — the first full month Biden’s approval ratings were below 50%.

There’s another factor that should help Biden’s approval rating: the start of a new phase of the Republican primary campaign, including the debates. As Republican candidates become more prominent in American life, voters may begin to judge Biden against the alternatives, and not just in isolation. Some of the Democratic-leaning voters who currently disapprove of Biden might start to look at Biden’s presidency in a different light.

Perhaps in part for these reasons, this is about the time many presidents see their stance change. Approval ratings for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were clearly on the rise at this point in the election cycle — though both were still below 50% — as voters began to see and feel an improving economy.

We’ll see in the coming months if Biden’s ratings start to rise. I wouldn’t expect that to happen quickly: Reagan’s and Clinton’s ratings rose by less than a point per month between roughly that time and their re-election. Barack Obama’s ratings rose at a similar, albeit slightly slower, pace from his post-debt ceiling crisis nadir later in the year.

But even if it’s not fast, I would expect Biden’s ratings to start rising if those conditions remain in place. Today’s era may be polarized, but there are plenty of persuasive and even Democratic-leaning voters — who disapprove of his performance — available to return to his side.

If the economy continues to improve and yet his ratings remain stagnant in the coming months, that will gradually begin to raise difficult questions about the real source of his weakness — including the possibility that his age, by fueling perceptions of a weak president, is preventing voters from seeing him as effective, regardless of his actual record.

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