Despite near-record low unemployment, respectable Gross Domestic Product growth, wages outpacing inflation, and disposable personal income rising President Joe Biden’s job approval numbers have been stuck in the low 40s. Here: Biden remarks on Bidenomics at the Philly Shipyard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 20, 2023. Credit: Star Shooter/MediaPunch /IPX

Despite near-record low unemployment, respectable Gross Domestic Product growth, wages outpacing inflation, and disposable personal income rising, Joe Biden’s job approval numbers have been stuck in the low 40s. Even more perplexing, approval for his handling of the economy is usually a tick worse than his overall job approval.

In turn, several commentators are openly wondering: Why hasn’t Biden gotten credit for the improving economy?

But the better question is: How long does it take for any president to get credit for an improving economy?

We don’t have a pat answer because every president’s economic circumstances differ. But we have evidence to suggest that credit does not come quickly.

Ronald Reagan experienced a sharp recession early in his first term, from July 1981 to November 1982, with the unemployment rate peaking at 10.8 percent a month after the recession officially ended. For all of 1982, the Gipper’s job approval in Gallup polling was in the 40s, and in January 1983, it briefly sunk to the 30s.

Throughout 1983, however, the GDP grew like gangbusters, with annualized rates of over 8 percent in the latter three quarters. While unemployment dropped steadily almost every month, it only reached 8.3 percent by year’s end. Reagan’s approval remained mainly in the low 40s until November 1983, after the public applauded a successful military operation in Grenada. From then on, Reagan enjoyed job approval above 50 percent until the Iran-Contra scandal midway through his second term.

George H. W. Bush was hit with a recession that technically lasted from July 1990 to March 1991. But Bush could never claim credit for improved GDP growth in 1992, primarily because, as often happens in recoveries, the unemployment rate kept rising for a time. Before the recession began, the unemployment rate was at 5.2 percent, then peaked in June 1992 at 7.8 percent, edging down only slightly before Election Day. Also unhelpful to Bush: disposable personal income slid in the three months before Election Day. His job approval plummeted into the 30s, and he decisively lost his re-election bid.

Bill Clinton won that election by promising to focus like a laser on the economy, a shot at Bush, who he portrayed as distracted by foreign policy. By 1994, it would seem that the Arkansan had. GDP growth was strong, and unemployment declined to 5.8 percent the month before the 1994 midterms. Yet the public was not yet willing to give Clinton much credit either. During much of that year, support for Clinton’s handling of the economy in CBS News/New York Times polling was in the low 40s (which, granted, was an improvement from most of 1993, when that number was in the 30s).

Clinton didn’t get out of his polling doldrums until Republicans instigated an unpopular government shutdown at the end of 1995. After Clinton refused to accept GOP demands for deep budget cuts, his overall job approval in Gallup polling cleared 50 percent and stayed there for the rest of his presidency. But in CBS/New York Times polling, his approval on the economy still lagged, with disapproval usually outrunning approval. Only after June 1996, following three-and-a-half years of continued GDP growth on Clinton’s watch, did public approval for Clinton’s economic management consistently stay above water.

After his honeymoon faded, Barack Obama’s first-term approval on handling the economy never reached 50 percent, even though upon entering office, he quickly addressed the Great Recession, which began in 2008, with the stimulus package known as the Recovery Act. The quarterly GDP growth mainly turned positive but sustained high unemployment hampered his ability to brag. Then one month before the 2012 election, the unemployment rate dropped below 8 percent for the first time in his presidency. Mitt Romney—already reeling in late September after derisive comments about the “47 percent” of lower-income Americans were caught on video and leaked to Mother Jones—had to scrub from his stump speech that Obama was presiding over “43 straight months with unemployment above 8 percent.” Obama abruptly narrowed the gap between approval and disapproval of his economic record in New York Times polling, from a 15-point deficit in August to two points in September and a single point in October, helping him eke out re-election.

The biggest weak spot of Biden’s economic record has been high inflation, not high unemployment or anemic economic growth. The year-to-year change in the Consumer Price Index was an overheated 9.1 percent in June 2022, far higher than the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target and the highest level in 40 years. Most Americans had, until that point, no personal memory of high inflation. But inflation has been coming down since its Biden-era peak, and as of June, it is at 3 percent. (Though the Fed pegs its inflation target to a slightly different metric, the Personal Consumption Expenditures Index excluding food and energy, which dropped from a Biden-era peak of 5.4 percent in February 2022 to 4.1 percent as of last June.) Most impressively, prices have cooled without triggering a recession or higher unemployment, raising hopes of an economic “soft landing.”

But to expect Biden to reap immediate political benefits is unrealistic, considering recent history. Prices have been rising for over two years. During that period, wages have outpaced inflation only in the last two months (even though, as Washington Monthly contributing writer Rob Shapiro has noted, inflation-adjusted disposable personal income has been rising since the middle of last year). Past presidents have needed much longer stretches of good economic data before the public gets generous with political credit.

Furthermore, what people feel about the economy often differs from what the data shows. A mid-1990s survey project conducted by the Washington Post, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University found that in the summer of 1996, when GDP growth was robust, 42 percent of respondents felt the economy was only growing slowly, while another 37 percent believed the economy was either stagnant, in recession, or depression. So even if you are dismayed, don’t be surprised by the newly released July CNN poll showing that 51 percent think “the economy is still in a downturn.”

Biden is hardly the first president to face a public that doesn’t want to accept the good news. “The inability of Mr. Clinton to ride the economy’s coattails is confounding his political advisers,” reported The New York Times in June 1994. Obama would later dub Clinton the “Secretary of Explaining Stuff” because the charismatic yet wonky Clinton seemed to effortlessly weave a compelling narrative of Obama’s first-term economic record. But for a long while as president, Clinton struggled to make his case.

Many Democrats this week are probably chewing their fingernails down to the nub after seeing the New York Times/Siena College poll finding Biden and Trump in a dead heat, despite the positive economic news and Trump’s mounting legal problems. But in August 1995, at the same point in the 1996 election cycle as today, the CBS/New York Times poll had Clinton trailing the Republican Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole by six points. He would soon beat Dole by 8.5 points.

Today’s deep political polarization makes another 14-point swing unlikely; general election trial heats between Biden and Trump have been stubbornly close for months. But there’s little reason to fret that Biden can’t pick up the support needed to win re-election, so long as the current economic trajectory continues through next year. Swing voters tend to vote with their pocketbook and stick with presidential incumbents in almost every instance.

The Post/Kaiser/Harvard researchers offered several possible reasons for the disconnect between positive economic data and public acceptance, one of which was “the media tend to emphasize the aspects of the economy that are getting worse and to pay less attention to the evidence that the economy is improving.” That’s why presidents should aggressively sell their own story, as Biden has begun to do with his “Bidenomics” strategy, and not expect the press to connect the data points.

So just because the Bidenomics promotion of recent weeks hasn’t dramatically changed his poll numbers doesn’t mean the public relations effort is futile and the incumbent fatally flawed. Selling economic recovery following economic trauma has always been harder than it looks. Patience and persistence should carry the day—and the Electoral College.   

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Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.