Fine, Call It a Comeback

If the Joe Biden who showed up to deliver the State of the Union address last week is the Joe Biden who shows up for the rest of the campaign, you’re not going to have any more of those weak-kneed pundits suggesting he’s not up to running for re-election. Here’s hoping he does.

But that’s not the only thing from Thursday night that I hope Biden holds onto. So far, the Biden team has been more sure-footed attacking Donald Trump’s threat to democracy than it has been defending Biden’s incumbency. That reflects a strange problem they face. By virtually any measure save food prices, Biden is presiding over a strong economy — stronger, by far, than most peer countries. As Noah Smith has noted, the Biden economy looks far better than Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America”: Unemployment is lower, inflation is lower, interest rates are lower, stock market returns are better.

But Americans feel otherwise. The most recent Times/Siena poll found that 74 percent of registered voters rated the economy either “poor” or “fair.” By a 15-point margin, voters said Trump’s policies helped them personally. By a 25-point margin, they said Biden’s policies hurt them personally.

Voters seem to remember the tail end of Trump’s third year, when the economy was strong, and not the utter calamity of his fourth year, when his Covid response was chaos and the economy was frozen. In November of 2020, unemployment was 6.7 percent and Trump had just turned a White House celebration into a superspreader event. Republicans who say Americans should ask whether they’re better off than they were four years ago should be careful what they wish for.

But Biden is in a tough spot. You don’t want to run for re-election telling voters they’re wrong and the economy is actually great. Nor can you run for re-election telling voters that they’re right and the economy is bad. Biden has often seemed a little unsure what to say about his own record. Thursday night, he figured it out.

“I came to office determined to get us through one of the toughest periods in the nation’s history,” Biden said. “We have. It doesn’t make news, news — in a thousand cities and towns, the American people are writing the greatest comeback story never told.”

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