By just about any measure, the mighty American economy is chugging along nicely. The much-forecast recession of 2023 simply never happened. Instead, the jobless rate has remained below 4% for two years, wages are finally rising faster than inflation, and the economy revved up in the third quarter to post a nearly 5% growth. Bipartisan investments in infrastructure and computer chip manufacturing are just starting to bear fruit, fueling more economic tailwinds in the months ahead.
In fact, in a note to clients Wednesday, Goldman Sachs declared “the hard part is over” for efforts to shore up the global economy, predicting that inflation would continue to ease in 2024. The bank’s researchers now expect a mere 15% risk that the United States will tip into a recession next year, following a spate of forecasters, including those at the Federal Reserve, voicing growing economic optimism.
But many Americans don’t share that view, and the Republican presidential candidates taking the stage in Miami for Wednesday night’s debate, hosted by NBC News, will be looking for opportunities to reinforce their outlook.
In a new Bankrate survey, half of Americans reported that their overall financial situation is worse now compared with Election Day 2020. And a New York Times/Siena College poll released this week found 81% of voters rating the economy either “fair” or “poor,” with just 19% calling it “good” or “excellent.”
Yet despite the widespread pessimism, consumers — who drive two-thirds of economic activity — are still spending.
“People may be feeling bad, but they are not spending badly,” said Nela Richardson, chief economist of the payroll processing firm ADP. “They are spending like they are optimistic, even though they are reporting that they are pessimistic.”
What gives? The likely explanation is a gloomy soup of two major wars, ongoing domestic political divisions, a still-recent pandemic and price pressures that have slowed down dramatically but rarely reversed.
“It’s one word: inflation,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate. In his view, inflation’s lingering toll over the past year and a half more than makes up for the historic strength in the job market and other upsides to Americans’ wallets.
“Inflation is coming down, but prices aren’t coming down, which is the source of the irritation” for many, Hamrick said. And of course, the country’s yawning economic inequality means that robust overall consumer spending figures can’t help but mask wide disparities in households’ finances. (“There’s no one, monolithic ‘consumer,’” Hamrick noted.)
Inflation has eased from the painful 9.1% in the middle of last year to 3.7% in September. But while economists and Fed officials are cheered by that trend, ordinary Americans vividly recall a not-so-distant past when many things were cheaper.
For example, the average price of a gallon of milk in November 2019 was $3.19. It surged to $4.20 in May 2022, before settling back to $3.97 this fall.
“We’re in an economy where the price level has taken a big, gigantic step up,” said Richardson. Add in the highest interest rates in decades and borrowing money is more expensive too — translating to steeper mortgage rates and credit card interest.
A year out from the 2024 vote, it’s an open question how, or even whether, Americans’ economic malaise will play out either in the economy itself or at the ballot box. But both parties have been betting heavily that it will matter.
President Joe Biden has been pounding pavement to trumpet $5 billion in new investments to juice rural economies, hoping that voters will reward him and fellow Democrats for infrastructure projects ramping up across the country. Meanwhile, Republicans have raced to pin voters’ frustrations over high prices on “Bidenomics,” the term with which the White House has tried — with uncertain success — to brand the administration’s economic policies.
Of course, presidents frequently get too much credit and too much blame for the state of the economy on their watches, and pollsters note that voters tend to blame a leader for a declining economy more than they credit them for a good one.
But if Tuesday night’s election results are any indication, there’s no guarantee that next year’s contest will hinge on the economy. In a number of races — albeit off-year ones that tend to draw a different mix of voters than those who turn out for presidential elections — other issues rose to the fore.
Abortion access in particular has continued to propel Democrats to victories at the state and local level after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. In many cases, conservative voters who strongly disapprove of Biden, including for his handling of the economy, crossed party lines to back more expansive reproductive rights.
If the past 12 months’ mistaken economic predictions have illustrated anything, it’s that a lot can change in a year, both in Americans’ financial lives and the ways they feel about them.
Reflecting on the dissonance between many of the economy’s fundamentals and consumers’ sour outlook, Richardson was circumspect.
“When that feeling starts translating into behavior,” she said, “I think that’s when we’re going to have to pay attention.”