It’s the economy, stupid.
For decades, that’s been seen as a sound political strategy behind every effective presidential campaign.
Focus on the economy and people’s pocketbooks — and get some good luck in terms of how the economy is actually running when you run for office — and voila: You get elected to the White House, and you win reelection.
The question a growing number of Democrats are asking, however, is whether that’s still the case, as President Biden deals with stronger economic numbers but low approval ratings.
At a time of ever-greater political polarization, when abortion rights is the hot election issue of the day and former President Trump continues to shadow and change the American political landscape, is it still the economy, stupid?
Even Democratic strategist James Carville, who coined the phrase, has acknowledged some doubts.
“Well, I’ve always thought so,” Carville, 78, said last week to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer when he was asked point-blank if he still believed the political philosophy for which he’ll be remembered.
“I’m starting to doubt myself a little bit, because this economy is quite good. Maybe it will kick in. And sometimes it takes a while for people to feel it,” he said.
In an interview with The Hill, Carville said he generally still believes that yes, it is the economy, stupid.
But he expressed a mixture of frustration and exasperation that Biden’s approval ratings remain stuck in the low 40s, even as unemployment is at a historic low and inflation has fallen.
“The economic bounce back, it was had by any measure … but, for whatever reason, people are not connecting this, [they] don’t think that economy’s that good,” Carville told The Hill. “To the extent they think it’s good, they’re not giving the president’s policies very much credit for it.”
“I can understand how these guys are disheartened,” he said of the White House. “So you wonder, well, why this disconnect?”
A number of presidents have also been punished by voters for either a faltering economy or the perception it is poor, from Democratic President Jimmy Carter to GOP President George H.W. Bush.
The economy was a terrible headwind on Republican John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008, though voter fatigue with foreign wars and Democrat Barack Obama’s star power were also negative factors for him.
Obama inherited a difficult economy, and Democrats were famously shellacked in the 2010 midterms amid deep voter anger over a recession and government spending. But in 2012, Obama was able to win reelection, in part by convincing voters he better understood their economic problems than Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
The political scene has changed dramatically since 2012, with Republicans and Democrats even more firmly in their tribal camps in the Trump era. That has coincided with questions, at least, about the role of the economy in elections.
As recently as the 2022 midterms, Republicans expected to rally to big wins in House and Senate races amid polls showing voters greatly unhappy with the state of the economy. Instead, other issues — particularly abortion, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, seemed much more determinative.
Republicans did win back the House majority, but with a much smaller margin than expected. They failed to win back the Senate.
The economy seems much better today than even a year ago, yet it is not helping Biden — at least yet.
“I think some of it is, there’s just so much built up on how bad the economy was, the struggle the economy was in, are recessions coming? I think that’s a hard bell to unring,” Carville said.
Bruce Mehlman, former assistant secretary at the Commerce Department under President George W. Bush, said the economy seems less of a factor today than it once did.
“Over the past two decades, traditional economic metrics have increasingly detached from presidential approval numbers and right-track or wrong-track sentiment, with the 2022 midterms the ultimate example,” said Mehlman, a founding partner at Mehlman Consulting. “The data screamed ‘giant wave,’ but many anxious voters preferred known incumbents over frightening disruptors.”
Josh Bivens, research director at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, said his “gut” tells him Biden may eventually benefit from the economy.
He predicted that with 3 to 4 percent inflation or lower and consistent low unemployment for another year could lead to higher ratings for Biden. Unemployment currently sits at just 3.6 percent.
“The ratchet-up of inflation in 2021 and early 2022 very much unsettled people, and they are only now really recognizing that the ratchet has started to reverse pretty decisively,” Bivens said.
Republicans have shifted their messaging to a degree.
While they still argue the economy is struggling under Biden, they are focusing their political attacks on Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, and corruption. Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has indicated that House Republicans may move forward with an impeachment inquiry based on the president and his family’s business dealings.
The White House, for its part, has stepped up its arguments for Biden’s economic stewardship, arguing that Bidenomics is showing its effectiveness.
They’ve also lambasted Republicans for their focus on other issues.
“Instead of pursuing this shameless and baseless impeachment stunt, House Republicans and Speaker McCarthy should join the President to work on continuing to bring down inflation and lower costs, create jobs, and grow the economy,” Ian Sams, a spokesperson for the White House Counsel’s Office, said Tuesday. “That is, after all, what the American people sent their leaders to Washington to do.”
Biden is traveling to Arizona, New Mexico and Utah this week to discuss his economic agenda and the Inflation Reduction Act, which is the Democrats’ major climate and tax bill. Republicans bashed the trip to Arizona on Tuesday as a stop on “Biden’s Bankrupting America Tour.”
“Americans aren’t buying the lies Biden tells about Bidenomics – they can’t afford it,” RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement.
Polls show the public has doubts about Biden on the economy.
Only 34 percent of Americans in a Monmouth University poll last month said they approve of his handling of inflation, and Biden received a split rating on his handling of jobs and unemployment, with 47 percent approving and 48 percent disapproving of it.
Carville remains a loyal Democrat and said he’s hopeful the White House is right that public sentiment will catch up to what he views as a strong economy.
“They project a lot of confidence,” Carville said. “For the sake of a lot of things, I hope they’re right.”
Source: The Hill