The misery index is a crude but effective way to measure the health of the economy. You add up the inflation rate and the unemployment rate. If you’re a president running for re-election, you want that number to be as low as possible.
When Ronald Reagan won re-election, it was about 11.4, when George W. Bush did so it was 9, for Barack Obama it was 9.5, and today, as Joe Biden runs for re-election, it’s only 7.7.
Biden should be cruising to an easy re-election victory. And that misery index number doesn’t even begin to capture the strength of the American economy at the moment. There are a zillion positive indicators right now, as the folks in the administration will be quick to tell you. The economy has created 13 million jobs since Biden’s Inauguration Day. According to the Conference Board, a business research firm, Americans’ job satisfaction is at its highest level in 36 years. Household net worth is surging.
We learned Thursday that the U.S. economy grew at an annualized 2 percent rate in the first quarter of this year, well above the economists’ expectations of around 1.4 percent. The best part of it is that the new prosperity is helping those who have long been left behind. In the four years of Donald Trump’s administration, spending on manufacturing facilities grew by 5 percent. During the first two years of Biden’s administration, such investment more than doubled and about 800,000 manufacturing jobs were created.
This is not just coincidence. It’s a direct outcome of Biden policies: the Inflation Reduction Act, with its green technology provisions, the infrastructure bill, the CHIPS Act.
Biden’s stimulative spending did boost the inflation rate, but inflation is now lower than in many other developed nations and our economy is stronger.
So Americans should be celebrating. But they are not. According to an NBC News survey conducted this month, at least 74 percent of Americans say the country is on the wrong track. The Gallup economic confidence index over the past year has been starkly negative; people haven’t felt this bad about the economy since the throes of the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. The University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index is also tremendously downbeat. Joe Biden’s approval numbers have been stuck around a perilously low 43 percent for a year.
As the maestro political analyst Charlie Cook noted in 2020, on average, presidents tend to lose their re-election bids when about 70 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, and they tend to win when fewer than half of Americans think that.
Why are Americans feeling so bad about an economy that’s so good? Partly, it’s inflation. Things have stabilized recently as inflation has dropped, but for a while there, real wages really were falling. Prices on things like gas and food are now significantly higher than they were three years ago.
The Biden folks are hoping that as inflation continues to decline and as they get the word out, Americans will begin to feel better about things. But it’s not that simple.
Part of it is the media. A recent study found that over the past couple of decades headlines have grown starkly more negative, conveying anger and fear. That’s bound to spread bad vibes through the populace.
But the main problem is national psychology. Americans’ satisfaction with their personal lives is nearly four times as high as their satisfaction with the state of the nation. That’s likely because during the Trump era we have suffered a collective moral injury, a collective loss of confidence, a loss of faith in ourselves as a nation.
America has suffered two recent periods of national demoralization. In the 1970s, during Vietnam and Watergate, Americans lost faith in their institutions. During the Trump era, Americans also lost faith in one another. Those who supported Trump were converted to the gospel of American Carnage, the idea that elite Americans seek to destroy other Americans, that we are on the precipice of disaster. Those who opposed Trump were appalled that their countrymen could support him, disgusted by his rampant immorality, alarmed that their democracy was suddenly in peril.
The anthropologist Raoul Naroll argued that every society has a “moral net,” a cultural infrastructure that exists, mostly unconsciously, in the minds of its members. America’s is in tatters. This manifests a loss of national self-esteem. People begin to assume national incompetence. Fearful and anxiety-ridden people are quick to perceive the negative aspects of any situation, hypersensitive to threat, prone to pessimism.
You can’t argue people out of that psychological and moral state with statistics and fact sheets. Biden is going to have to serve as a national guide, not just an administrator. He has to get outside the protective walls that have been built around him and make himself the center of the nation’s attention, not Trump. He’ll have to come up with a 21st-century national story that gives people a sense of coherence and belonging — that we are marching in a clear direction toward some concrete set of goals.
Good jobs numbers alone don’t heal a brutalized national psyche, and that’s our main problem right now.