Monday, March 4, 2024

Presidents seeking a second term have often found the public’s perception of the economy a pivotal issue. It was a boon to Ronald Reagan; it helped usher Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush out of the White House. Now, as President Biden looks toward a re-election campaign, there are warning signals on that front: With overall consumer sentiment at a low ebb despite solid economic data, even Democrats who supported Mr. Biden in 2020 say they’re not impressed with the economy. In a recent New York Times/Siena College poll of voters in six battleground states, 62 percent of those voters think the economy is only “fair” or “poor” (compared with 97 percent for those who voted for Donald J. Trump).

The demographics of Mr. Biden’s 2020 supporters may explain part of his challenge now: They were on balance younger, had lower incomes and were more racially diverse than Mr. Trump’s. Those groups tend to be hit hardest by inflation, which has yet to return to 2020 levels, and high interest rates, which have frustrated first-time home buyers and drained the finances of those dependent on credit. But if the election were held today, and the options were Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, it’s not clear whether voter perceptions of the economy would tip the balance.“The last midterm was an abortion election,” said Joshua Doss, an analyst at the public opinion research firm HIT Strategies, referring to the 2022 voting that followed the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling. “Most of the time, elections are about ‘it’s the economy, stupid.’ Republicans lost that because of Roe. So we’re definitely in uncharted territory.”

There are things working in Mr. Biden’s favor. First, Mr. Doss said, the economic programs enacted under the Biden administration remain broadly popular, providing a political foundation for Mr. Biden to build on. And second, social issues — which lifted the Democrats in the midterms — remain a prominent concern.

Take Oscar Nuñez, 27, a server at a restaurant in Las Vegas. Foot traffic has been much slower than usual for this time of year, eating into his tips. He’d like to start his own business, but with the rising cost of living, he and his wife — who works at home answering questions from independent contractors for her employer — haven’t managed to save much money. It’s also a tough jump to make when the economy feels shaky.Mr. Nuñez expected better from Mr. Biden when he voted blue in 2020, he said, but he wasn’t sure what specifically the president should have done better. And he is pretty sure another Trump term would be a disaster.“I’d prefer another option, but it seems like it will once again be my only option again,” Mr. Nuñez said of Mr. Biden. For him, immigrants’ rights and foreign policy concerns are more important. “That’s why I was picking him over Trump in the first place — because this guy’s going to do something that’s real dangerous at some point.”

Mr. Nuñez isn’t alone in feeling dissatisfied with the economy but still bound to Mr. Biden by other priorities. Of those surveyed in the six battleground states who plan to vote for Mr. Biden in 2024, 47 percent say social issues are more important to them, while 42 percent say the economy is more important — but that’s a closer split than in the 2022 midterms, in which social issues decisively outweighed economic concerns among Democratic voters in several swing states. (Among likely Trump voters, 71 percent say they are most focused on the economy, while 15 percent favor social issues.)

Dour sentiment about the economy also isn’t limited to people who’ve been frustrated in their financial ambitions. Mackenzie Kiser, 20, and Lawson Millwood, 21, students at the University of North Georgia, managed to buy a house this year. Mr. Millwood’s income as an information-technology systems administrator at the university was enough to qualify, and they worried that affordability would only worsen if they waited because of rising interest rates and prices. Still, the experience left a bitter taste.“The housing market is absolutely insane,” said Ms. Kiser, who wasn’t old enough to vote in 2020 but leans progressive. “We paid the same for our one-story, one-bedroom cinder-block 1950s house as my mom paid for her three-story, four-bedroom house less than a decade ago.”

Ms. Kiser doesn’t think Mr. Biden has done much to help the economy, and she worries he’s too old to be effective.

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