The misery index is a rough but effective way to measure the health of an economy. 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.
It was about 11.4 when Ronald Reagan was re-elected. George W. Bush was nine years old when he did so. For Barack Obama, it was 9.5. And today, Joe Biden is running for re-election, but his approval rating is just 7.7.
Biden should be easily on his way to a re-election victory. And that dismal index number isn’t starting to capture the strength of the US economy at this point. As administration officials will tell us soon, there are a myriad of positive indicators at this point. Since Biden’s inauguration, the economy has created 13 million jobs. Job satisfaction among Americans is at its highest level in 36 years, according to the Conference Board, a business research firm. Household net worth is soaring.
On Thursday, it was found that the U.S. economy grew at an annualized rate of 2% in the first quarter of this year, well above economists’ expectations of about 1.4%. The best part 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 has increased by 5%. In the first two years of the Biden administration, those investments more than doubled, creating about 800,000 manufacturing jobs.
This is no mere coincidence. This is a direct result of Biden policies, namely the Inflation Control Act, which includes the Green Technology Clause, the Infrastructure Bill, the CHIPS Act, etc.
Biden’s stimulus certainly boosted inflation, but inflation is now lower than in many other advanced economies and our economy is doing well.
So Americans should celebrate. But it’s not. At least 74% of Americans say the country is on the wrong track, according to an NBC News poll conducted this month. The University of Michigan Consumer Confidence Index is also very weak. Biden’s approval rating has hovered at a dangerously low 43% for a year.
As maestro political analyst Charlie Cook pointed out in 2020, on average about 70% of Americans think the president is more likely to lose re-election if they think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Less than half of the American population tends to be elected president.
Why do Americans feel so bad about such a strong economy? Partly inflation. Things have stabilized recently as inflation has fallen, but real wages have actually fallen for some time. Prices for things like gasoline and groceries are now much higher than they were three years ago.
Biden and others hope that as inflation continues to fall and the information spreads, the American public will start feeling better about things. But it’s not that simple.
Part of it is the media. Recent research shows that headlines have become more negative and convey anger and fear over the past few decades. It will surely spread bad vibes among people.
But the main problem is public sentiment. Americans are almost four times more satisfied with their personal lives than they are with their state of the nation. Perhaps it is because in the Trump era we have suffered a collective moral injury, a collective loss of self-confidence, a loss of faith in ourselves as a nation.
America has suffered two recent national demoralizations. In the 1970s, during the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, Americans lost faith in their institutions. In the Trump era, Americans have also lost trust in each other.
Anthropologist Raul Narrol argued that every society has a cultural foundation, a “moral net”, that exists almost unconsciously in the minds of its members. America is a mess. This represents a loss of national self-esteem. People begin to believe that the state is incompetent. Fearful and anxious people are quick to perceive the negative aspects of any situation and tend to be hypersensitive to threats and pessimistic.
Statistics and fact sheets cannot be used to pull people out of their psychological and moral state. Biden will have to act as a national leader, not just an administrator. He must step outside the protective walls that have been built around him and make himself the center of public attention, not President Trump. He will need to come up with a 21st-century national story that gives people a sense of coherence and belonging, that we are heading in a definite direction toward some concrete goal.
Employment figures alone cannot cure a cruel national spirit, which is our main problem today.
David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times.
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