Did you recently fill up with a gas pump? Since then, you may have noticed that historically high prices have returned to seemingly more reasonable prices. Gas in central Indiana fell to $3.88 after he was once high at $5.25. For travelers, it’s not exactly the same time that schools are reopening and the family holiday season is ending. For an economy struggling to cut costs for working Americans, this remains a welcome change, and a great disappointment for the President and his policies.
President Joe Biden has regularly faced criticism over rising inflation in the economy (including petrol prices creeping at historic highs) and pressures in the housing market. The unemployment rate has remained so low that it has barely been reported, dropping to just 3.5% in July. The economic trade-off seems to be higher consumer prices, forcing even the less cautious to think a little more before making a purchase. His CPI in July was up 8.5%, down from his 40-year high of 9.1% in June, but previously he was pinching nickels because he was a penny. It is no comfort to those who are in it. (Historical comparisons have averaged 2.3% year-on-year inflation over the last 30 years.)
Long-standing concerns about inflation, coupled with gas prices and the housing market, have ruined Biden’s presidency as he closes out the first half of his term. Sure, the Federal Reserve has raised interest rates to cushion the impact (he’s quadrupled this year!), but prices have risen too far to ignore. The issue could have devastating consequences for Democrats this November, but such blanket assumptions ignore some key nuances in American politics.
First, whether we are facing a recession is largely debatable. To technically qualify, you have to go through a six-month recession. With inflation rising and interest rates rising, many believe it’s a “when” rather than an “if.” Even with the looming signs of a recession, the political impact may be negligible. Political action does not depend on truth alone, but on framework and perspective. Objective reality is subordinate to subjective perception. If you think things are going well, things are going well. If you think otherwise, at least it’s not for you.
Economic polls emphasize the importance of perceptions, whether they are assessing the economic health of the nation as a whole or the financial health of individuals. Sociotropic voting relies on views of the national economy, while pocketbook voting focuses on individual experiences. A retrospective economic vote evaluates the current administration’s work. Then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan suggested to voters in a 1980 debate against incumbent Jimmy Carter: (The catchphrase resonated with many Americans, and voters only voiced their displeasure with a “no” a week later.)
All of these factors are subject to prioritization. Researchers have determined that voters punish incumbents when they’re bad and praise them when they’re good, but a range of issues and political complexities make even that assessment difficult. With the passing of Indiana’s abortion law, social issues could overrule individual preferences to vote based on economics. And it remains to be seen whether voters will prioritize the most prominent wedge problem of our generation or the most stressful economic times our country has experienced in over a decade.
One thing is certain: voters respond to salient issues they feel are relevant and important in their lives. No matter how they vote, voters should not lack motivation to participate in the midterm elections for Congress.
James Carville once yelled, “Economy, idiot!” An effective appeal to communicate the impact of macroeconomics to individual voters. With the rapid inflation marked so far in 2022, it is foolish to recognize the importance of the economy.
Laura Merrifield Wilson is an associate professor of political science and an alumnus of the Indiana Capital Chronicle.