Joe Biden's economy is, honestly, pretty amazing: How come he doesn't get credit?

Many voters claim Biden's economy is bad and Trump's was better. What fantasy version of America do they live in?

By Kirk Swearingen

Contributing Writer

Published November 13, 2023 6:00AM (EST)

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media as he departs the White House on November 09, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media as he departs the White House on November 09, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

If the economy is so bad, why are shops and restaurants so packed?

I understand that anecdotal evidence is hardly worth mentioning, but it does make you wonder if people are as concerned about the prices of goods and services as polling data says they are. As you stand in line at that restaurant or circle the mall parking lot looking for a space, do you wonder about the disparity between what people apparently tell pollsters about the economy and what you can see with your own two eyes? 

My wife and I are pretty conservative, at least in terms of economic consumption. When we splurge on a meal out, we tend to share a main dish and a salad. That’s both financial and dietary economy; we simply cannot finish the huge portions many restaurants typically serve. Part of that is a consequence of getting older, but it might also be that we can’t eat that much because somewhere along the line we made a conscious practice of not eating that much. I suspect that was connected with raising our daughters and paying for college. 

But when we eat at restaurants now, we notice what appears to be freewheeling spending all around us — trays of upscale cocktails and appetizers, pricey entrées and desserts. When we travel to see our grandchildren, the story is the same: Whether we’re in Nashville, Knoxville, Charlotte or Lexington, the restaurants are full. People seem to be spending money like there’s no tomorrow (and maybe there’s something to that).

It's easy to question the economic woes of someone who drives a $50,000 pickup, or complain about the guy in our town who drives around in an absurdly tricked-out golf cart flying a full-sized American flag. It’s entirely possible those individuals are Trump supporters who believe — or claim to believe — that Joe Biden is doing a terrible job with the economy, in the face of nearly all available evidence. Some of those dressed-down folks packed into the restaurants may feel the same way, despite the splurge-spending. 

Biden’s bad economy? What does that even mean? Never mind the lowest unemployment numbers in decades and the other telling economic data points: Just look around. Even the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal acknowledges how strong the economy has been under this president:

Not only has economic output made up all the ground lost during the pandemic but it is above where it would have been had the pandemic never happened, judging by what the Congressional Budget Office projected in early 2020.

So what gives? Why do so many people tell pollsters that they think Trump and the Republicans would do a better job with the economy when that has literally never been true in my lifetime? (When Republicans claim they’re great with the economy, there must be a “worthless statement clause” buried in the fine print.)

Why do so many people tell pollsters that they think Trump and the Republicans would do a better job with the economy when that has literally never been true in my lifetime?

Polling makes clear that Trump’s “working-class” supporters are not with him primarily over economic concerns. They must secretly suspect by now that he has no clue about managing the economy (and is a terrible businessman). They back Trump for his simplistic and often incoherent answers to complex issues. They love him for the hatred of others he promotes and the “anti-civic purpose” he gives them license to feel. Floating nonsensical or self-canceling conspiracy theories and “owning the libs” are easier (and a lot more fun) than actually trying to formulate policies to help move us forward as a nation in this fraught world. The old political button that read “Vote Republican: It’s Easier Than Thinking” isn’t even sarcastic in the age of voter suppression, book banning, Christian nationalism, and self-serving fake history.

 As New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz said in a recent Salon interview, that put-down by Democrats has long been embraced as a winning tactic by the GOP:

I'm a little bit hesitant to say that the Democrats are the party of smart people and the Republicans are the party of ignorant people. But I think the Republicans caught on a little bit sooner to the fact that this whole projection of anti-intellectualism was a vote-winner, and they really made it their brand.

Americans like simple. They want a snappy slogan, not a complex and nuanced story without obvious villains. Democrats, for their own reasons, still haven’t wrapped their heads around that. 

MAGA voters tend to be more well-heeled (and not in the Ron DeSantis sense) than working-class Americans in general. They often pretend to be down-home guys and gals, but consider how many of the Jan. 6 rioters flew into Washington and stayed in nice hotels before they stormed the Capitol. We could assemble a considerable list of supposed good ol’ boys in Congress who attended Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford, where they presumably battled the liberal elites.

One inconvenient truth is that the ethos of a consumer society teaches us that enough is never enough. Our especially rapacious form of capitalism tries to fuel and amplify our desires and enable as many thoughtless purchases as possible. My wife and I recently traveled to the city where I grew up, for the funeral of my best childhood friend. I could barely recognize the place, or navigate through the endless rows of restaurants, strip malls and big-box stores sulking shoulder to shoulder along all the main streets. Of course, the city we live in now looks much the same.

In many other affluent democratic countries — the ones where happiness is considered to be highest — people actively think about what they are consuming and why. But it isn’t surprising that citizens of countries with better government services and robust social safety nets have the mental and emotional space to do that. 

The Republican economic message to Americans remains steadfast: Every man for himself (It’s every woman for herself too, but for much of the GOP, women are still secondary and highly troublesome considerations, mostly meant to be controlled and manipulated). The Ayn Rand winner-take-all ethos and the thoroughly disproved trickle-down theory, which holds that helping those who need no help will somehow lift everyone up, continue to be trotted out in debased, zombified form. It’s unclear whether anyone still believes these deeply wrong and simplistic ideas, but plenty of people still embrace the myth that one day they might just get to join the billionaires’ club. 

It’s unclear whether anyone still believes the Republicans' ludicrous economic theories, but plenty of people still embrace the myth that one day they might get to join the billionaires’ club. 

Republicans tell people what they long to hear, while Democrats are forever hamstrung by trying to tell people what they need to hear in order to function as responsible citizens in a democracy. But busy, overworked, stressed-out people don’t want complexity, and most people have no abiding interest in politics. But they do crave neatly packaged explanations that blame their own problems, and the world’s, on somebody else.

So while Republican voters keep on complaining about the Biden economy, they also keep on consuming like mad. They don’t like the higher prices of the last few years, which is understandable enough, and it doesn’t matter to them that all industrialized countries saw similar rates of inflation during the post-pandemic recovery, or that the inflation rate in the U.S has come down faster than in most other countries. 

Any economist or political scientist will tell you that presidents don’t usually have much effect on the economy, but in fact Biden’s policies, especially on infrastructure spending and revitalized manufacturing, are making a difference. “Build Back Better” wasn’t a big hit as a slogan, but it was a reasonable strategy that has led to better economic times.

Another way to consider the packed shops, planes and restaurants of this moment is to reflect that we were bottled up for too long by the various strains of COVID-19 and that the apocalyptic thinking spread by our former president and his political party has affected too many of us. The worsening crisis of climate change hangs over us all, whether or not we want to think about it. We have one more or less functional political party, while the other one, a bizarre cult led by men super worried about their masculinity, talks endlessly about societal collapse and civil war. As Michael Stipe sang way back when: “It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).” We all want comfort in hard times, and we definitely all want to get out of the house and see our friends, even if we know we are just wishing the pandemic to be over.

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Many of the people thronging the bars and restaurants are millennials (and even Gen Z members) who feel trapped by student debt, working jobs that don’t pay them enough to let them plan for the future. They may have concluded that absent a big score, they’ll never be able to buy their own house or have kids.

Our younger daughter belongs to that generation, and says that’s the situation for most of her friends and colleagues. When you feel your personal economic future is bleak, it makes sense to live your life in terms of short-term enjoyment. George Orwell wrote in his memoir “Down and Out in Paris and London” that the poor in England would spen money on small luxuries, like a pack of cigarettes or a decent cup of tea, because poverty “annihilates the future.” Not too many of the millennials in those restaurants live in actual poverty, but when they look around them, they sure must feel cheated out of the old-school American dream.

Many of the younger people thronging bars and restaurants have probably concluded that absent a big score, they'll never be able to buy a house or have kids.

All that said, the fact is that Joe Biden’s economy is historically strong. That doesn’t seem to matter. Too many people buy into the shameless rhetoric of MAGA candidates who tell them what they want to hear, and maybe what they’re thrilled to hear (especially about their freedom to behave badly against others), rather than mundane or complicated facts about how responsible governments and economies work.

Our problem isn’t that democracy is failing us. We need more of it, not less — along with a return to the study of civics as part of our education. What’s failing us, and failing the world, are the dull-witted politicians we send to Congress and state houses who try to push their religious views on the entire country and embrace a ruthless, predatory, unthinking capitalism, that lowers nearly everyone’s standard of living but elevates a tiny minority to incalculable and unhealthy levels of wealth.

Last week’s election results in Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky and elsewhere offered heartening evidence that many voters are resistant to deceptive campaigns, and proved how out of step with public opinion the current Republican Party and its captive Supreme Court really are. But while abortion rights are clearly a potent issue for voters (including a lot of independents and Republicans), Democrats need to make a better case about how much Joe Biden has accomplished for the economy in general and for working-class Americans in particular.

Facing near-total opposition by Republicans in Congress (the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act got exactly zero GOP votes), Biden got the massive bipartisan infrastructure bill passed. His manufacturing plan invests in rural areas and will transform local economies. He’s the first president in many decades to stand with organized labor and support its fight for better wages and benefits. He continues to work on alleviating the crushing student debt that limits so many young adults’ lives. He has taken on Big Pharma, moving to lower prescription drug prices and health care costs for older Americans. He is working to stop the junk fees hidden in so many transactions. He rejoined the Paris climate accords and has done far more to address that crisis than any previous president. 

But what really needs to change is the predatory character of present-tense American capitalism, where profit too often comes from the suffering of others. That would allow our younger generations, and all of us, to lead better and happier lives. Biden has done his part, but he can’t fix that on his own. The Republicans don’t want to, and won’t even try.

By Kirk Swearingen

Kirk Swearingen is a poet and independent journalist. He is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, and his work has appeared in Delmar, MARGIE, Bloom, the American Journal of Poetry, Riverfront Times, Medium and Salon.

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