America is awash in good news — but does that equal a bad election for Joe Biden?

Good economic news for America usually makes for a good election for the incumbent. Why things may be different now

By Heather Digby Parton


Published July 14, 2023 9:36AM (EDT)

Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

I don't know if it's morning in America, exactly, but we can at least see the faint glimmer of dawn on the horizon. Even the relentlessly negative media has started to make note of it — at least some of them, anyway. Sure, we are still seeing headlines by newspapers and cable networks which seem to be determined to temper any positive developments with caveats and forewarnings. But the coverage has shifted a bit in the past couple of weeks and that must be a welcome development for the Biden administration.

Take, for instance, the Politico Playbook from Thursday which starts off with this encouraging paragraph: "President JOE BIDEN is having a good week. A really good week, actually." It goes on to lay out a whole bunch of good economic news, starting with the fact that the inflation number is now down to 3%, the lowest its been since March of 2021, and observing that in Washington and on Wall St., a consensus is building that the economy may have turned the corner. They did have to add that the Fed may do one more round of interest rate hikes anyway, but the betting is that it will be the last one unless something happens to change the trajectory.

Of course, they also reported that even as they roll out their Bidenomics campaign message, there is still trepidation within the administration about declaring that the crisis has passed because of the Supreme Court's sabotage of the school loan repayment program and the serious possibility that the MAGA caucus in the House of Representatives is going to shut down the government again, over some culture war nonsense. If they do it, it will likely result in the Republicans being blamed by the public as they always are but they don't seem to be able to help themselves.

Even taking all that into account, it's looking good for the economy. As economist Justin Wolfers told Politico:

"The story of almost every recession in modern American history is something bad happened, and it was something bad we didn't see coming. What could happen between now and 2024? A shit-ton of bad things. You know what else could happen? Good things."

The four years of Trumpian chaos and terrifying instability followed by an even more terrifying global pandemic have taken its toll. We're overdue for some good things.

President Biden should be able to make the case that the economy is in much-improved shape and American foreign policy has stabilized. The question is, does any of that really matter to his re-election chances?

This week also featured Joe Biden on the world stage with Turkey on Monday ending its year-long blockade of Sweden's entreé into NATO. He managed to soothe the frayed nerves of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and reassure Eastern Europe that the U.S. was not faltering in its commitment to its security. Biden gave a stirring speech in Lithuania to a large, enthusiastic crowd that chanted USA!, USA! at the end. He ended up in Helsinki to welcome Finland into the NATO alliance, drawing a very distinct contrast with the infamous Helsinki meeting between former president Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

So, assuming there isn't another disaster on the horizon, it would appear that President Biden should be able to make the case that the economy is in much-improved shape and American foreign policy has stabilized. The question is, does any of that really matter to his re-election chances?

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

There has been a very lively debate on that subject over the past couple of years. For instance, "popularism" holds that these things don't matter all that much in electoral terms and that the Democrats would be better off talking about the political positions they hold that are popular while soft-peddling the ones that aren't. I'm not sure that precludes bragging about accomplishments but it would certainly indicate that they should focus on the accomplishments that people say they really care about like capping the price of insulin. Others believe that the Party should run on aspirational issues that cater to the base to boost turnout.

The Trump train wreck still dominates everything and is going to overwhelm us as the campaign heats up and these criminal indictments suck up what is left of the oxygen.

More recently, and more to this specific point, there has been a debate over what is called "deliverism" which is the idea that in order to persuade voters that you will improve their lives you have to ... well, improve their lives. The authors, David Dayen and Matt Stoller argue in the American Prospect that the reason Democrats aren't benefiting from the the policies they've enacted over the past few administrations is because they weren't very good policies and they didn't really do much for people. Others, like Deepak Bhargave, Shahrzad Shams and Harry Hanbury make the case in Democracy Journal believe that voters just aren't moved by economic policy much at all, mostly because they are ill-informed about what the government does and have been conditioned to see politics through a right-wing frame. More importantly, their worldview today is shaped by "a crisis of what French sociologist Émile Durkheim called "anomie," or normlessness, arising from the dizzying pace of social, economic, political, and technological change in our times and the weakening of institutions that foster social cohesion." It's this, they say, that leads people into the arms of authoritarians like Donald Trump, not economic policy.

I happen to think none of that is particularly relevant to where we are at this moment in American politics. I'm very pleased and frankly surprised at how much the Biden administration has accomplished but I don't think that's where people's minds are even in the midst of economic upheaval. The Republicans have turned politics into an anarchic reality show and that's all people have the bandwidth to consume. Of course, they are concerned for their own economic well-being just as they are concerned about climate change and education and all the rest. But the Trump train wreck still dominates everything and is going to overwhelm us as the campaign heats up and these criminal indictments suck up what is left of the oxygen.

This means that for this election it's, once again, all about negative partisanship. The main motivating factor for Democrats is the threat posed by this far-right Republican Party that's gleefully rolling back long-established rights and granting new ones entitling their own followers to discriminate against anyone with whom they disagree. To the extent there are going to be issues beyond the horrifying prospect of Donald Trump becoming president again, they are all around foundational American ideas about freedom, democracy and personal autonomy being threatened by extremists in the Republican Party.

So, while I would certainly agree that Biden should tout his "kitchen table" accomplishments and educate the public about what they mean to them (if only to assuage the pundits who will, as always, insist that he must have a "positive message") I think Democratic success will turn on the same thing it's turned on in the last three elections —resistance to the right wing's precipitous authoritarian turn. Democrats and Independents may or may not appreciate the good news in the economy or foreign policy. Hopefully, they will. But they are going to come out to vote against Donald Trump and the Republican Party out of fear and anger at what they have done and are prepared to do to this country. Those are valid and important reasons and the strong emotions that drive them should not be denigrated. They may be what it takes to save us. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bidenomics Commentary Donald Trump Elections 2024 Joe Biden Media Criticism