One More Reason Why 2016 May Not Be a ‘Change Election’

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

If you are a median, full-time American worker, then congratulations: Your inflation-adjusted weekly earnings hit an all-time high in the third quarter of this year, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As Vox’s Matt Yglesias notes, median weekly income had stagnated for most the 21st century. Before the past year and a half, the only major growth in such earnings came in the midst of the Great Recession, when so many low-wage workers were laid off, the median wage among the still-employed shifted upward.

But over the past 18 months, America has seen rising weekly wages amid low unemployment, with paycheck growth powered by a tight labor market that bestows bargaining power on workers — and a global oil glut that provides them low inflation.

That sunny BLS data comes one month after the Census Bureau’s annual report found that household-income growth hit an all-time high in 2015.

Now, economic growth is still tepid. Inequality is still massive. Many homeowners remain underwater on their mortgages. Many workers are being forced into irregular schedules that increase stress and unhappiness within their households. There are a lot of people in America who have a lot of economic problems. And they have plenty of legitimate reasons to feel outraged.

Still, there is a dissonance between the economy’s recent performance and the common view that 2016 — even more than 2012 — is an election in which an angry electorate longs for a change in executive leadership. Under this view, any Republican besides Donald Trump could have waltzed into the White House on the backs of the 64 percent of Americans who say their country is on “the wrong track.”

As Jonathan Chait has argued, the “right track/wrong track number” is a poor metric for judging the public’s relative contentment with the party occupying the White House, not least because many liberal Democrats frustrated by the limits of divided government (and/or their own party’s moderation) are counted among the dissenters.

By contrast, other measures of public sentiment appear commensurate with the economy’s relative strength. In Gallup’s most recent measure, 57 percent of Americans approve of President Obama, while only 40 percent disapprove — a figure that roughly corresponds to the size of the Republican base.

And a Bloomberg poll released this week found that 49 percent of Americans consider themselves better off now than they were in 2009, while only 28 percent say they are worse off.

Americans may not have much affection for those clowns and crooks in D.C. And they may feel that their preferred political party is locked in a losing battle with an opposing side that grows more evil and powerful by the day. But when you ask them to contemplate their own economic circumstances, most will admit it’s getting better — and for that, Obama deserves some measure of thanks.