WASHINGTON — As Democrats look ahead to November, they see a lot of reasons for worry, and the economy tops them. How voters feel about their elected representatives is often directly tied to how they feel about their bank accounts — and right now Americans aren't feeling good about where the economy is and where they think it's headed.
Whether the negative feelings are justified depends on where and how you look at the data. The nation's economic picture in the spring of 2022 is complicated, but its mood about it isn't. Voters aren't happy.
Let's start with that surliness. If the best measure of the economy is how voters feel about it, the Democrats have a lot to worry about. Since last summer, consumers' economic feelings largely have been on a downward trajectory, and that has especially been true in the last few months, according to the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index.
Shortly after Joe Biden was sworn in as president, the nation's consumer confidence ticked up a bit, from 79 in January 2021 to 88.3 in April 2021, according to the Michigan index. But that didn't last. The number bounced around a bit before it headed back into the low 70s in August. And since December, the figure has fallen from 70.6 to 62.8 in February (the latest available figure).
As a point of comparison, the index was at 101 in February 2020, the last measurement before the Covid pandemic hit.
And other numbers make it clear whom voters blame for their current sour mood: Biden.
The latest NBC News poll finds that only one-third of Americans approve of how Biden is handling the economy; two-thirds disapprove. That's a pretty massive gap in what is often the most important issue to voters.
Like any good political operation, the Biden White House is quick to defend. Going by many measures, it argues that Biden has done a fairly good job with the economy. And the data suggest they have a point in some ways.
In recent years, Americans have tended to judge the health of the economy using two key gauges, the unemployment rate and the stock market. They are shorthand ways to assess how well the economy is working for workers and how well it is working for businesses. And going by those figures, things actually do look pretty good.
Since January 2021, when Biden was inaugurated, the national unemployment rate has fallen to just 3.6 percent from 6.4 percent. That's a decline of 2.8 percentage points, which equals millions of people getting jobs.
And even with the drop in the unemployment rate, other data show there is still a lot of room for job growth. In February, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported more than 11 million job openings across the country — positions available for those who want them.
For those who follow the market, the news has also been good.
The stock market closed last week at 34,721. The figure is down a bit since January, but it has been up in the last six months, and it is up by 11 percent since Biden took office.
Those aren't bad numbers, particularly considering the free-floating economic anxiety that has shaken the country and the world in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
So what's behind all the economic anxiety? The most obvious answer is one word: inflation.
Over the past year, which is closely aligned with Biden's White House term, the Consumer Price Index has climbed rapidly.
In January 2021, it was 1.4 percent higher than it had been 12 months earlier. By July it was 5.4 percent higher than 12 months earlier. By December it was 7 percent. And in February, it was 7.9 percent higher.
Those increases matter a lot, especially to those with lower incomes, who feel as though they are falling behind. Furthermore, the price increases have been across the board, on cars and gas and groceries to homes. If you're spending money, you're paying a little more for almost everything you're buying.
And the inflationary pressures this year may feel even worse because they haven't been felt for a long time. Over the last few decades, low inflation has become the norm. The last time the inflation rate was this high was 40 years ago, in 1982.
The inflation this spring feels troubling, strange and new — and for many Americans it is.
It's the problem the Biden White House and Democrats face. They can (rightfully) point to good unemployment and jobs numbers and trumpet the increases in the stock market. But all that "good news" feels empty to a large swath of voters who feel they are on a treadmill with no way to make up economic ground.
The result is less an economic conversation than it is two groups talking past each other. It's a problem without an easy fix. And in an election year, when political messaging is all important, it spells trouble, no matter what set of data you want to cite.