the economy

It Makes Sense That Bidenomics Is Unpopular (So Far)

Photo: Andrew Spear/Getty Images

Progressives have long aspired to make American politics more materialistic.

In recent decades, the Democratic Party has bled support from socially conservative working-class voters. Although these losses have been partially offset by gains among college-educated suburbanites and young Americans, the erosion of (predominantly white) working-class support for Democrats still poses two fundamental challenges to the progressive project: First, the development has made it more difficult for the party to assemble the large congressional majorities necessary for enacting reforms on the scale of the New Deal or Great Society. Second, the Democrats’ growing reliance on affluent voters threatens to constrain their redistributive ambitions. To this point, the party has managed to grow more fiscally progressive and demographically high-income simultaneously. But in the process, it has developed a commitment to shielding all households earning below $400,000 annually from federal tax increases. Suffice to say, one cannot get very far down the road to social democracy while leaving tax rates on earners in the top 2 percent historically low.

Thus, realizing the left’s ambitions for the U.S. likely requires expanding Democratic support among working-class voters with right-of-center views on immigration and/or criminal justice and/or myriad other social issues. And doing this without alienating the Democrats’ existing coalition members, or sacrificing progressives’ ideological commitments, requires persuading such voters to prioritize material uplift over their most reactionary cultural views.

Many Democrats hoped that Bidenomics would achieve precisely this. After all, the president’s economic policies have delivered tangible benefits to working-class voters. During his first year in office, Joe Biden’s expanded child tax credit cut child poverty by 46 percent. The Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS Act have catalyzed hundreds of billions in manufacturing investment, as foreign semiconductor and green-technology firms have relocated factories to the United States. The IRA also cut drug costs for seniors and health-care costs for those purchasing insurance on the individual market. Meanwhile, Biden’s macroeconomic management has prioritized full employment. Thanks in part to the American Rescue Plan, the labor market recovered at a historically rapid pace, with unemployment returning to half-century lows just two years after the COVID recession. It has rarely been easier for an American to find a job than it is today.

And yet, Joe Biden is a historically unpopular president. As of this writing, 54.4 percent of Americans disapprove of Biden’s job performance in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. A recent AP-NORC Center poll, meanwhile, finds only one-third of voters approving of Biden’s handling of the economy.

Some progressives have looked at this state of affairs and declared the death of materialist politics. In a recent essay for Democracy Journal, Deepak Bhargava, Shahrzad Shams, and Harry Hanbury argue that Biden’s unpopularity disproves “deliverism” — the theory that “if you deliver economic improvements in people’s lives through policy, these changes will solidify or shift people’s political allegiances.”

If correct, this analysis would bode poorly for Biden’s emerging reelection strategy. In recent days, the White House has mounted a nationwide push to celebrate — and popularize — the president’s approach to economic management, newly dubbed “Bidenomics.” This week, administration officials are touting clean-energy manufacturing in South Carolina, water-infrastructure investments in Arizona, lead-pipe removal in Michigan, lower Medicare drug prices in Ohio, and high-speed internet improvements in New Mexico.

Fortunately for the White House, Democracy Journal’s eulogy for “deliverism” is unconvincing. Less fortunately for Biden, the magazine’s argument is unpersuasive precisely because it fails to account for the fact that the president has not actually delivered unambiguous economic improvement for a majority of Americans. If inflation continues to decline, however, that could change by November 2024.

Bhargava, Shams, and Hanbury write that “deliverism” is premised on “a naïve assumption more commonly associated with economists, particularly neoliberals: that humans are rational actors motivated above all by immediate material interests.” In their estimation, Biden’s unpopularity contradicts that model of political behavior. As they write:

The American Rescue Plan’s temporary expansion of the child tax credit lifted more than 2 million children out of poverty, resulting in an astounding 46 percent reduction in child poverty. Yet the policy’s lapse sparked almost no political response, either from its champions or its beneficiaries. Democrats hardly campaigned on the remarkable achievement they had just delivered, and the millions of parents impacted by the policy did not seem to feel that it made much difference in their day-to-day lives … Biden’s success in reducing unemployment to the lowest level in 54 years goes virtually uncredited, with his approval rating hitting an all-time low of 36 percent this past May.  

These developments certainly disappointed progressives’ expectations for how the combination of large public investments in manufacturing, full employment, and cash transfers to parents would reshape U.S. politics. But they don’t actually contradict the “naïve assumption” that the essay seeks to refute: If every voter behaved like a perfectly rational and selfish economic actor — rewarding policies and politicians that advanced their immediate material interests, while punishing those that did not — then we would not expect Biden’s economic management to be popular at this juncture.

Bhargava and his co-authors put a lot of weight on the expanded child tax credit’s failure to either increase Biden’s popularity or sustain itself politically. But parents with children under 18 constitute a minority of the electorate. And that minority did feel that the policy made a positive difference in their lives. Bhargava et. al. suggest that this constituency did not think much of the policy, citing a poll in which only 15 percent of the child benefit’s recipients said it helped them “a lot.” But an additional 64 percent of recipients in that survey said that it had helped them “a little.” Which means that a good number of Republican parents grudgingly admitted that a Democratic policy had helped them.

The trouble is that the vast majority of Americans were not beneficiaries of the expanded child tax credit. Among all adults in the aforementioned poll, only 24 percent said that the policy had helped them “a lot” or “a little.”

Why the enhanced CTC’s beneficiaries failed to mobilize against its expiration — as many in the Biden administration had hoped that they would — is a worthwhile question. But the fact that the policy did not render Biden more popular is perfectly consistent with a crudely economistic conception of voter behavior: In an inflationary context, any policy that increases the purchasing power of one group is liable to erode that of everyone else. The more money that parents of young children have to spend on goods and services, the more upward pressure there will be on consumer prices. The expanded child tax credit therefore redistributed purchasing power away from the majority of households without minor children to the minority with them. This is a good policy, and not an inherently unpopular proposition, since human beings are capable of solidarity. But if we presume that voters are perfectly rational and selfish materialists, we would not expect the expanded CTC to be popular.

Biden’s broader economic agenda has much to recommend it. To this point, however, the president has not presided over a broad-based improvement in living standards. Yes, the unemployment rate is historically low. But low unemployment is not an immediate concern for most Americans (at least, if we assume their perfect selfishness and rationality). The vast majority of U.S. workers did not lose their jobs during the COVID downturn. Therefore, they did not experience the labor market’s rapid recovery as a reprieve from precarity. Rather, for this relatively fortunate majority, the post-COVID recovery has been characterized by falling real wages, as prices have grown faster than paychecks. America’s substantial retiree population, meanwhile, has no direct investment in full employment, but a great deal of sensitivity to consumer prices.

Thus, for most U.S. voters, Bidenomics has yet to deliver unambiguous economic improvement. Real disposable income has been trending upward in recent months, but it is still lower than it was when Biden took office.

If we assume that voters are rational actors motivated by immediate economic interests, then we would expect them to disapprove of a president who’s presided over a decline in the median American’s real income.

None of this is to say that “deliverism” is necessarily a cogent theory of political success. There are many reasons to doubt that progressive economic reform reliably yields electoral benefits. Historically, voters have exhibited a strong status-quo bias, with public opinion growing more liberal in response to conservative policy changes and more conservative in response to liberal ones. When Barack Obama pushed for the Affordable Care Act, support for universal health care fell to its lowest level in modern history. When Donald Trump pushed for restricting immigration, public opinion on that subject turned historically liberal. More recently, the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade has spurred unprecedented support for abortion rights. It is also worth noting that some of the most progressive legislative sessions in American history were followed by conservative backlash. In the first midterm following the enactment of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, Republicans gained 47 House seats in the House.

Meanwhile, as Bhargava, Shams, and Hanbury suggest, the collapse of trust in government, culture-war polarization, the rise of right-wing media, and a deepening crisis of loneliness and anomie all threaten to reduce the political benefits of progressive economic reform by rendering the impacts of such policies less visible and salient to beneficiaries.

For all these reasons, it seems doubtful that Democrats can build a commanding national majority solely by improving material conditions for working-class Americans (at least in the near-term, or through politically plausible measures). Realizing progressives’ grandest ambitions for economic reform will require radically increasing popular trust in government, along with a good deal of generational replacement.

Nevertheless, delivering broad-based material improvements may still be the Democrats’ best hope for preserving Biden’s narrow Electoral College majority and keeping a dangerously authoritarian Republican Party out of power. In our polarized era, elections are won at the margins. Tiny shifts in voters’ allegiances can decide the balance of power. It remains plausible that economic conditions exert significant influence over such shifts.

To this point, the many virtues of Bidenomics have been obscured by inflation. But that could change in the coming year. Inflation has been falling for months. Between May 2022 and May 2023, real wages increased by 0.2 percent. The manufacturing investments catalyzed by the IRA and CHIPS Act are just starting to make themselves known. If these positive trends continue, then the median voter should enjoy unambiguous material gains in 2024. It’s entirely possible that such a triumph of Bidenomics could be followed by electoral defeat. But we should wait for that to actually happen before putting “deliverism” to rest.

It Makes Sense That Bidenomics Is Unpopular (So Far)