It was for President Joe Biden a “mission accomplished” moment. “Our country is taking everything that COVID has to throw at us, and we’ve come back stronger,” he proclaimed while celebrating a positive jobs report for the start of this midterm election year.
“America is back to work,” Biden said. “Today we learned that in January, our economy created 467,000 jobs. But that’s not all. We learned that job growth in November and December over last year was revised up by more than 700,000 jobs.”
Biden gave himself a substantial part of the credit and said what is needed now is the passage of his dormant economic agenda to keep the momentum going.
The January jobs report was genuinely good. But the country is neither out of the woods yet.
It is neither clear that trillions of dollars in recent federal spending is primarily responsible for what’s good in our economy nor that piling trillions of dollars more in new spending — assuming a 50-50 Senate can even salvage that much of the Build Back Better program, especially with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin now insisting on regular order — will address the continuing problems.
Inflation is at a 40-year high and is gobbling up nominal wage gains. The US economy is still 3 million jobs short of its pre-pandemic peak and employers are struggling to find workers. About 4.5 million people quit their jobs in November alone. Inflation plus labor shortages is a different mix than the stagflation of yesteryear, but not an entirely healthy one.
More importantly, we should expect to see robust economic growth and healthy jobs reports each month. The economy was artificially shut down to contain the spread of the coronavirus. It is still in the process of being reopened. That reopening by itself should create phenomenal numbers no matter who is in office, as Democrats themselves warned when it began in 2020 and had the potential to benefit former President Donald Trump.
Biden’s administration surely deserves credit for accelerating vaccine distribution. There are other individual policies for which a case can be made, like the child tax credit. But a reopening economy should be a booming one.
To some extent, it is. We’re experiencing GDP growth rates unseen since the Reagan administration, which longtime Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley memorably described as “the seven fat years.” Still, the jobs reports are inconsistent and serious underlying economic problems — including too much money chasing too few goods — remain.
That’s why Biden’s job approval ratings on the economy don’t match the White House celebrations. Nearly 57 percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of this critical issue, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, with most of the individual polls showing him about 20 points underwater. Other surveys find strong majorities rating the state of the economy as either fair or poor.
In downplaying a stock market dip earlier this year, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration relied on other barometers of economic health. She has sometimes suggested that the voters don’t look at abstract statistics or frequently cited metrics.
“Our measure of success is really how real working families are doing — whether they are — have a little breathing room, whether they have a job that delivers some dignity and a paycheck… they can support a family on,” Psaki told reporters. “And we’ve seen a great deal of progress made on that front.”
Progress, perhaps, especially compared to the height of the lockdowns, from which the White House is now distancing itself. But these data points aren’t very abstract and a lot of working families will still find them unsatisfactory a little over a year into Biden’s term.
Biden’s argument is going to be that things would be better if he was allowed to do more of the same. That’s not going to be persuasive to many voters, and it may set up those who do buy it for major disappointment as the prospects of further legislative progressive on the economic front look dim.
Either way, Biden is going to have to answer why the next $2 trillion can achieve what the last $2 could not, without worsening inflation.
As the original “mission accomplished” man could tell Biden, premature declarations of victory often age badly.
W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner’s politics editor. He was previously managing editor of the Daily Caller, associate editor of the American Spectator, and senior writer for the American Conservative. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? You can follow home on Twitter: @Jimantle.