Annie Lowrey at The Atlantic speculates why the economy is not a winning issue for President Joe Biden. After all, the economy is in pretty good shape, Lowrey says.

The jobless rate is below 4 percent, as it has been for nearly two and a half years. Wage growth is moderating, but it is higher than it was at any point during the Obama administration; overall, Biden has overseen stronger pay increases than any president since Richard Nixon. Inflation has cooled off considerably, meaning that consumers’ purchasing power is strong.

Yet Biden’s approval rating is below 40 percent. His disapproval rating is 56 percent. Donald Trump is beating him handily in most key swing states. And there’s a chance that Trump might edge out Biden in the popular vote, particularly if he continues to expand his popularity with Black and Latino voters in blue and purple states.

This reality has engendered panic among many Democratic campaign operatives, and no small degree of dismay too. What does it mean if Biden can’t win a campaign as an incumbent in an economy like this—during an election in which most Americans say the economy is the most important issue to them?

But is the economy as good as Democrats think?

Indeed, the sunny numbers about the economy—the low jobless rate, strong wage growth, soaring wealth accumulation, and falling inequality—fail to account for some cloudier elements. Americans remain stressed by, and ticked off about, high interest rates and high prices. Homes and cars, in particular, are unaffordable, given the cost of borrowing and insurance. And inflation has moderated, but groceries and other household staples remain far more expensive than they were during the Trump administration.

The majority of Americans are better off because their incomes have grown faster than prices. But most people, understandably, think of their swelling bank account as a product of their own labor and price increases as a result of someone else’s greed. People want prices to come down. That’s not happening.

Oh, soooo close. Lowrey is right that people want prices to come down, but inflation only works one way. But the public doesn’t blame “greed” (which is built in to our market system) for inflation. They blame the government because they know inflation is not the normal condition of the economy. Mention inflation in the 1980s, the public didn’t talk about corporate greed in the 1970s. They blamed former President Jimmy Carter for the inflation in the 1970s and punished the Democrats accordingly in the 1980s.

But Lowrey has a different explanation of why voters are not giving Biden credit for a strong economy: they don’t care.

The economy might be less salient for voters when it is good than when it is bad.

The trend also fits with emerging political-science and polling literature showing that economic factors are weighing less heavily on voters’ assessment of the president. Gas prices used to be a good proxy for the public’s feelings about the performance of the White House. But there has been “hardly any association” for the past decade, Kyle Kondik at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics has found. Similarly, presidential approval used to be strongly correlated with the consumer-sentiment index, the political scientist Lee Drutman has shown, but that stopped being the case back in 2004.

Why is the link between the economy and political sentiment fraying? Ironically, the dramatic improvement in material well-being over the past 50 years might be part of the answer: As countries get richer, voters have more latitude to vote their values, putting topics such as environmental protection, LGBTQ rights, and racial equality ahead of issues such as taxes, jobs, and wealth redistribution. This election cycle, voters might cite the economy as being the most important issue to them when talking to pollsters and journalists, but they may ultimately show up to vote (or change their vote) on the basis of another issue—abortion, say, or immigration.

Plus, American voters have become more partisan in recent decades—more likely to be immovably aligned with one party or another, and to see their political affiliation as a major component of their personal identity. Polarization “attenuates” the effect that the economy has on elections: Reliable Republicans just aren’t going to vote for Biden, and reliable Democrats just aren’t going to vote for Trump.

(It’s worth remembering that in 2004 we had just been attacked by Al Qaeda three years prior and the country was at war.)

The Democrats are hoping abortion can save them, even as they don’t understand why the economy is not a winning issue for them. However, they should take a second look and, instead of saying everything is fine, acknowledge that their policies have led to the higher prices.

“A strong economy did not save Trump from becoming a one-term president,” wrote Lowrey. “It might not save Biden either.” A weak, inflation-riddled economy may not save Biden, either.

Because as James Carville famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

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