For an alternate viewpoint, see “Counterpoint: Bidenomics’ Rosy Data vs. the Price of Snickers Bars.”
With 2024 election campaigns already heating up, many pundits have become obsessed with explaining the disconnect between the economy’s strong performance and Americans’ stark disapproval of how President Biden has handled it.
The latest temperature check on consumers’ opinion from the University of Michigan’s Surveys of Consumers found their outlook low but steadily improving and reaching its highest level since July 2021. Meanwhile, the United States added 216,000 jobs in December and maintained a sub-4-percent unemployment rate for the 23rd straight month — the longest streak in over 50 years.
These consumer surveys illustrate a simple truth: Americans don’t pay much attention to the macroeconomic data pundits rely on to evaluate the economy — technical data like workforce participation rates, unemployment figures and the gross domestic product. Can you blame them?
What Americans do pay attention to, and what they understand in a sophisticated way, is their own lives and those of their families and friends. And to that end, what matters is buying power. Sinking inflation doesn’t necessarily equate to an immediate and equivalent drop in prices for everyday essentials like milk or produce; it just means additional price hikes will be smaller or nonexistent. But consumers still have every right to frown at paying $4 for a gallon of milk.
Getting caught up in reconciling economic indicators with economic sentiments risks overlooking the more significant point: Last year, American workers took matters into their own hands.
Across a stunningly broad array of industries, workers went on or threatened to strike to fight the phoniness of receiving pennies for “essential” work during a global pandemic while their CEOs enjoyed double-digit raises. These workers secured remarkable gains thanks to their efforts, including compensation bumps far beyond inflation in contracts poised to improve lives — including for UPS drivers, culinary workers, and pilots at United, Delta and American Airlines. At long last, American workers began to shrink the vast wealth and income inequality gaps that have become a hallmark of our economy.
But what makes these gains politically important going into this year’s elections? After all, only 6 percent of private-sector workers belong to unions these days, lagging behind all other major industrialized nations. How much does this matter?
It matters because union workers’ wins benefit more than just them. Most workers have family members who directly benefit from the new jingle in their pockets. More important, nonunion companies get scared and respond to significant gains for union members in their industries by dispensing raises of their own, both to discourage their workers from unionizing and to avoid losing workers to unionized competitors.
Perhaps the biggest example of this is the United Auto Workers’ simultaneous strikes at each of the Big Three automakers (Ford, GM and Stellantis) for the first time in UAW history. The result? Big wins for UAW members as well as for workers in non-unionized plants. Within weeks of the union’s tentative agreements, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai plants announced raises for U.S. workers. Tesla did the same in early January after the union announced efforts to organize one of the company’s plants.
Another important factor to remember when trying to gauge American workers’ personal economic prospects is the historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy we initiated in the 117th Congress — through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act — are just now starting to kick in. While many projects have been greenlit, they have only started breaking ground recently. This means many good union jobs in construction and manufacturing — and their spillover effects — are being created every month.
Regarding it, Americans’ feelings about the economy reflect their personal experiences, not a collection of impersonal macroeconomic data points. As 2024 unfolds, many workers will discover a new bounce in their step thanks to their bargaining prowess and the ripples that collective action sends through the labor market. These developments are a major contributor to the big turnaround in the latest consumer confidence numbers.
Workers enjoy seeing higher paychecks deposited in their bank accounts, new infrastructure and clean energy projects continue to roll out, unemployment remains low, and inflation continues to cool. The economy President Biden has presided over is sure to feel pretty good to American voters.