Seven months before he faces a critical test from voters in the midterm elections, President Joe Biden is turning his focus to kitchen-table issues as he struggles to get credit for a recovering economy.
Since Biden took office last year, job growth has been vigorous and steady — as he told the country Friday after the March jobs report showed the addition of 431,000 jobs and the unemployment rate falling to a low 3.6%. But those same remarks were also tempered by his recognition that food and gas prices are too high and inflation is at its worst level in a generation.
For Biden, convincing Americans of the progress made in the economic recovery only serves as a salient reminder of how much further the country has to go.
“Our economy has gone from being on the mend, to being on the move,” Biden said, even as he acknowledged Americans are not ready for a victory lap. “I know that this job is not finished: We need to do more to get prices under control.”
At times, Biden's bifurcated messaging — like the state of the economy itself — can seem like a jumble of contradictions. It leaves voters to piece together their own opinions — potentially to the president's political peril.
Record wage gains of 5.6% over the past year, for example, run up against consumer prices that have risen at 7.9% annually. Biden's announcement this past week of plans to release a million barrels of oil daily from the U.S. strategic reserve over the next six months was a recognition of the harm that inflation can have not just on the economy but his own policy ambitions.
The economic discontent is reflected in Biden's standing in public opinion polls.
Roughly 7 in 10 people in the United States describe the economy as being in poor shape, while nearly two-thirds disapprove of Biden’s economic leadership, according to a March poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Administration officials and Biden allies happily point to the job creation data as a sign of accomplishment but they are also perturbed by the lingering economic malaise that threatens him with a historically inhospitable environment for a president’s party in a midterm year.
They have advised Biden to spotlight his work to bring down gas prices and forthcoming efforts to try to curtail an increase in food prices from the war raging in the world’s breadbasket of Ukraine.
It is not just the family budget he is targeting. Biden’s latest message to voters is that he can bring the nation’s finances under control too.
His annual budget request highlighted a $1 trillion decrease in the deficit over 10 years, an effort to claim the mantle of fiscal steward even as the reduction was driven by the expiration of COVID-19 relief programs that are no longer necessary and a new plan for a minimum tax on the nation's billionaires.
“Responsible fiscal accountability is always a priority with voters," said Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who advised Biden's 2020 campaign. “I think people want fiscal accountability. And I don’t think that’s changed over the years.”
Biden aides also hope he can spend more time focusing on other ways that government is working to make concrete changes in peoples’ lives, with infrastructure investments and the improving economy.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, said there seemed to be a “disconnect” between Biden's legislative achievements and his handling of the war in Ukraine, and the public's understanding.
“I’m well aware that midterms are obviously always difficult for the party in power, but we’ve got a great story to tell," she told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “There is a lot of good accomplishments to be putting up on the board and the Democrats in office and out need to be doing a better job of making the case."
Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., said Wednesday after meeting with Biden that his messaging over the past month has clearly targeted moderate voters.
" The State of the Union was spot on in terms of what constituents in our districts, purple districts, are talking about right now," she said outside the White House. She noted Biden's pivot to addressing mental health issues after the pandemic, while also emphasizing that the president plans to run on infrastructure and job creation.
Voters have interpreted the pandemic, the recession, the burst of government spending, the swift recovery and the inflation that followed with a sense of pessimism.
The University of Michigan’s survey of consumer sentiment included a partisan breakdown of numbers that shows growing anxiety among the Democrats whom Biden needs to turn out in 2022. Democrats’ expectations for the economy have been dropping since July, while independents' expectations for the economy are at the lowest level since 2008 when the country was mired in the Great Recession.
Oil and gasoline prices have been a driver of this skepticism. Crude oil prices started the year at roughly $76 a barrel, spiked to about $124 on March 8 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and appeared to settle just below $100 on Friday after Biden had announced the release from the reserves.
Desmond Lachman, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, called the market reaction to Biden’s release of petroleum “muted” and noted that “in the short term we are subject to the whims of outside developments like the Russian invasion.”
University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers, whose work is separate from the sentiment survey, noted there is evidence that the public’s perception of inflation may be worse than actual inflation. That’s because gasoline, food and other items where prices are openly displayed are key drivers of higher prices, possibly giving inflation an outsize psychological impact.
Wolfers has done academic work on the impact oil prices have on gubernatorial elections, but he noted that historical comparisons might not work after the financial and cultural impact of a pandemic that has scrambled expectations.
“Were I Biden, I’d be using some version of a ‘better off than you were four years ago,’” Wolfers said. He said voters need to remember June 2020, when the world was gripped by the pandemic, the government was providing misleading information about the pandemic, the economy was terrible and “you also didn’t know whether you were going to die.”
“How do you feel now? That would be the argument,” he said.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.