Economic Patriotism, Rightly Understood
If the president doesn’t talk up America’s successes, who else will?
Ahead of the president’s State of the Union address tonight, Biden administration officials have heralded a raft of positive economic indicators—mainly the record number of new jobs created on his watch, including more than 500,000 in January, leading to the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years. The president himself has been out in the country highlighting new manufacturing opportunities and infrastructure projects.
Coming into office with the American economy still on its knees from the pandemic, this surge in employment and re-tuning of our economic engine is a great accomplishment for President Biden—and more importantly, for American businesses and workers in all parts of the country who helped to fuel these gains and drive our nation’s recovery.
America is back in business and it’s a collective achievement we should all be proud of—at least for an hour or so before the bickering starts up again.
The partisan urge at these high-profile events like the State of the Union is for the president to take a victory lap while his own side cheers and the other one hisses or sits on its hands. This approach is always a missed opportunity for presidents of either party.
President Biden should resist the urge to toot his own horn too much tonight. Instead, he should act as America’s chief booster and offer sincere thanks to all Americans—and governors, mayors, and business leaders across the nation—who led this recovery. Solid job growth has occurred in both blue states and in red states according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data, with employment up over the past year in 42 states and basically unchanged in the other 8 plus the District of Columbia. People across America deserve congratulations for a job well done.
Biden also needs to remind Americans that many of our fellow citizens are still having trouble and need help—particularly in the face of ongoing inflation, rising household expenses, and a general lack of financial stability.
Notably, the same week that booming jobs numbers emerged producing record low unemployment, ABC News/Washington Post polling revealed that more than 4 in 10 Americans say their personal finances are worse off since Biden took office—a 37-year high across multiple presidencies dating back to Ronald Reagan in 1986.
Talk about a disjunction. What explains the overall solid picture on the economy and the dire conditions and gloomy outlook among so many Americans? There’s no exact answer to this question but a few theories include:
Government statistics are increasingly just BS to many Americans. Citizens are overwhelmed with statistics of all kinds, and many people ignore them or put up a protective armor of skepticism against all reports. Likewise, public trust in government and politicians of both parties is extremely low. Americans often feel as if statistics are manipulated to defend a particular partisan narrative or agenda, so it’s not surprising that many people don’t believe the ones coming out from the White House or other government agencies.
Partisan interpretations of the economy are inescapable these days. Along with generalized skepticism of government and statistics, Americans from the opposite party of a sitting president increasingly view the incumbent’s economic policies and outcomes in a negative light regardless of overall indicators. When Donald Trump was in office, few Democrats had good things to say about the economy and his presidency. With Biden in office, Republicans feel likewise but with even more intensity.
Americans, particularly working-class families, are still feeling pressured by inflation and remain worried about the future. Beyond basic skepticism and partisan disdain for leaders of the opposite party, many Americans really are under economic stress. Although jobs are being created at a steady clip across the country, wages are not keeping up with rising household costs so lots of people are understandably feeling worse off than before. The effects of rising interest rates to combat inflation have also crimped budgets for many working- and middle-class families as they face higher housing, education, and health care costs plus other consumer debts.
Each of these explanations for why things may be going well overall while people still feel gloomy has merit. But the actual economic hardship of people facing household incomes not keeping up with rising costs seems most important, along with ongoing worries about the quality of new jobs and a possible economic slowdown later this year.
Attitudes on the economy will not improve in the near term—if ever—until more people feel that their paychecks are comfortably supporting a middle-class life.
President Biden needs to talk up America’s economy and its people tonight. It’s important for our presidents to always champion and respect the country and serve as America’s booster-in-chief.
But he also should remember that administration officials and economists telling Americans that inflation is slowing down while jobs are booming won’t cut it with lots of voters. Too many Americans are justifiably skeptical of happy talk while many others face real financial pressures.
If Biden wants to hit the sweet spot tonight, he needs to give Americans a healthy dose of economic patriotism—rightly understood.