CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski is about as far as you can get from a member of the vast right-wing conspiracy, and yet somehow, progressives and some Biden administration officials decided he should be this weekend’s piñata, all because he dared to point out an obvious truth that they didn’t want to hear.
Tom Nichols, irked that Republicans are on pace for big gains in the midterm elections, fumed early Sunday morning that, “The United States is facing the greatest danger to its constitutional system since at least the 1950s, if not the *18*50s, and millions of people are like: Yeah, but gas, man.”
This seems like a good time to observe that not only is unleaded gas is averaging $3.79 per gallon nationally this morning, the national average has been above $3.50 per gallon since the third week of February. The American electorate’s complaint isn’t that gas is expensive right now, it’s that gas has been expensive all year. Ron Klain keeps pointing to any decline over any time period as some sort of major victory, but people don’t feel good about gas prices being a few cents lower than the high price last week. People will feel good about gas prices when they’re back in the $2–$3 per gallon range..
Kaczynski responded to Nichols with the entirely accurate, maybe even tame, observation that, “It’s a midterm year and the party in power typically loses seats and people are more concerned right now about crime, inflation, the economy. Dismissing people’s real concerns isn’t a way to win them over.”
Now, Tom Nichols is a staff writer at the Atlantic, not an elected Democrat or a Democratic candidate for office or a consultant for the DNC, DSCC, or DCCC. If he wants to say the electorate is stupid for worrying about gas prices, he’s free to do that. If, as I suspect, we are in the territory of a red wave and approaching a red tsunami, you’re going to hear a lot of Democrats making that complaint. Because the lousy and pessimistic mood of the country could never be the fault of the Democrats in office, right?
What happened next is what’s particularly intriguing: Both Klain and progressive economist Dean Baker raged at Kaczynski, “It really takes some gall for the media to tell us that an economy with 3.5 percent unemployment is a disaster” — which is an exaggeration of what Kaczynski said, but hey, no one ever hires a progressive economist who’s active on Twitter for accuracy.
I support many methods of entitlement reform, but perhaps none more strongly than reforming Ron Klain’s sense of entitlement, especially his belief that he and Biden deserve the most generous and supportive media coverage imaginable. When voters think that the economy is lousy under a Democratic administration, that administration thinks the media’s job is to argue with voters and convince them that they’re wrong.
Klain and company really believe that an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent is an all-purpose magic wand and shield against any complaints about any aspect of the economy.
The problem for them is that people’s perceptions of the economy are shaped by a lot more than the unemployment rate. (Let’s also keep in mind that the unemployment rate in the month that Biden became president was 6.4 percent, which sounds bad compared to the current rate, but it had declined from 14.7 percent in April 2020, when Covid-19 effectively shut down the economy. America was hiring, and the unemployment rate was headed in the right direction on Inauguration Day.)
It’s just an objective fact that Americans are deeply concerned about the economy — every poll indicates this — and the right track/wrong direction numbers tell a similar story of widespread pessimism. What’s more, there’s some indication that the minority of respondents who tell pollsters that they think the economy is doing well are displaying motivated reasoning, as a PBS poll in September laid out: “A majority of Democrats and Biden’s 2020 voters don’t see a recession; everybody else seems to disagree. Most Republicans and independents say U.S. economic growth has slumped, and that impression holds for a majority of people in nearly every other demographic group. Comparable levels of economic pessimism haven’t been seen since March 2013 under the Obama administration.” Self-identified Republicans might be motivated to judge the state of the economy more harshly, but independents likely aren’t.
There’s been a little bit of a rebound in the perception of the economy in Gallup’s poll, which aligns with the decline of gas prices from their all-time peak in mid June. But the likes of Ron Klain don’t like hearing that slightly less bad gas prices are not the same thing as good gas prices. As I’ve mentioned before, gas prices probably have an outsized role in shaping perceptions of the economy, because the price for a gallon of unleaded gas is posted on giant signs near every major intersection, road, and highway across the country, and the price for a gallon of milk or a dozen eggs or a pound of hamburger meat just isn’t displayed the same way.
Of course, the news on grocery prices has been particularly bad this year, too. Gas prices generate the biggest headlines, but food prices are still rising in ways that make your eyeballs pop out of your head:
Prices at the grocery store continued to soar last month, adding even more pressure to shoppers’ wallets.
The food at home index, a proxy for grocery store prices, increased 0.7 percent in September from the month prior and a stunning 13 percent over the last year, according to new government data released Thursday.
Just about everything got more expensive in September.
A 13 percent increase in grocery prices in a year! In that light, it’s galling that Klain is offended that someone else thinks the economy is bad.
People buy groceries about once a week. (Or, if you’re like my household, they buy groceries on the weekend and inevitably end up running to the store during the week because they forgot something or didn’t realize they were low on something. Once you have teenagers, if you’re trying to get them to drink milk, you might as well buy a cow.) People remember roughly how much last week’s grocery bill was, and the week before, and the week before that. People know when they’re paying a lot more than they used to for food, and you can’t spin, sweet-talk, or Jedi-mind-trick them out of recognizing that.
Also, many households may be able to put off buying a new car or choose not to move into a new house or delay other non-vital purchases. But people need to eat. As Logan Dobson observed, “I wonder if it occurred to [Biden administration officials] that the unemployment rate being so low and people still not feeling like they can afford everyday items actually makes them feel worse, not better.”
For a long time, progressives argued that the average American needed to relate more to the problems of the working poor. Well, now, the average American does.
Beyond grocery and gas prices, I think the performance of the stock markets influences people’s perceptions of the economy, but not so much the day-to-day movement or even the big jumps or steep plunges. About 60 million Americans have 401(k) retirement accounts and about 62 million Americans have Individual Retirement Accounts. The older you are, the more you worry about how those accounts are doing, and some retirees are counting on dividends to supplement Social Security. The markets’ performance under Biden has been lousy, and I suspect that as Americans are feeling squeezed, paying more for gas and groceries, noticing their wages aren’t keeping up with inflation, finding that buying a new car has never been more expensive . . . and then they open up their quarterly statement for their 401(k) and see that it’s actually worse than the last quarter, then they feel like everything has gone completely wrong under this president and Congress. If the U.S. economy is doing as great as Ron Klain and progressive economists insist, why do so few Americans feel any of that prosperity?
Finally, in a desperate (and so far, not very effective) effort to control inflation, the U.S. Federal Reserve keeps raising interest rates. This makes it more difficult to get a loan or mortgage; the 30-year fixed rate is just under 7 percent, which is the highest it’s been in 20 years, and mortgage applications are the lowest ebb since 1997. While at any given moment, only a small percentage of Americans are looking to buy or sell a house, the higher rates are effectively crushing the U.S. housing market — sales are down 24 percent year-over-year and new housing construction is down 8 percent in a month. God knows how many Americans are putting off big life decisions because they can’t buy a house, sell a house, or afford to move.
A recent New York Times letters-to-the-editor page featured lots of readers beside themselves with disbelief and anguish that a decisive portion of the electorate could be unhappy with the economy, and blame President Biden and the Democrats for its condition. “The economy goes up and down; our threatened democracy may not be so resilient,” warned one letter.
That kind of easy-come, easy-go attitude toward the economy is only possible if you have a sufficient cushion to handle the higher grocery bills, higher gas bills, higher home-heating bills, higher rent, higher mortgage payments, and God knows what other sudden expenses come your way — car repairs, your child needing braces, or your home’s hot-water heater decided to quit at the worst possible time. (I wonder how many of those letter-writers have ever piously lectured others to “check your privilege.”)
There are some problems that are so big, you just can’t spin them away. If the administration had put as much effort into solving problems as it does into denying that the problems are problems, maybe it wouldn’t be staring a coast-to-coast midterm shellacking in the face right now.
ADDENDUM: If I were in the “hot take” business, instead of the “well-reasoned lukewarm take” business, I would argue that the Kansas referendum on abortion doomed the Democrats. That said, I do think there’s mounting evidence that the Democrats forgot that there’s a substantial difference between a referendum and a head-to-head election:
The second major miscalculation by the Democrats was on abortion, and I think it’s hard to overstate how elated Democrats were when they saw an overwhelming majority of Kansas voters defeat a referendum that would have added language to the state constitution declaring that the state’s basic law “does not create or secure a right to abortion.” And it’s understandable — it’s heavily Republican Kansas! The heartland! If there were a motivated pro-choice majority in that state, imagine what Democrats could do with that issue in every other state.
Kansas convinced Democrats that the abortion issue was a magic wand that could and would overcome, or at least mitigate, all other problems and issues. In a sign that Democrats were learning the wrong lesson from Kansas, they failed to notice that the state’s Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, was “very much not centering her campaign on abortion.” Kansans had too many other issues of concern. Kelly told CNN, “What they want me as governor to do is to focus on the kitchen table issues. You know, they want me to focus on the economy. And we have done that.”
Democrats also seemed to overlook that the big win on abortion was a referendum, not a race between two candidates. Campaigns for public office are between two or more candidates, and electorates decide whom they want to elect based on the person, not just their stances. If every race were a choice between two crash-test dummies with big PRO-LIFE or PRO-CHOICE labels on them, maybe Democrats would be in better shape. Unfortunately, they’re running flesh-and-blood human beings with their own quirks and flaws.