People Are Right to Be Unhappy About Bidenomics

A majority of Americans are dissatisfied with Biden’s economy and the results of Bidenomics. The left should organize that anger, not try to defuse it.


Since this summer, a debate has raged on the broader left about why US voters are so down on Joe Biden’s economy despite many macroeconomic indicators telling good news. Job growth has brought unemployment down to historic lows while workers have made real wage gains, boosting the position of low-wage workers and reducing income inequality

Since the summer, there is arguably even more to be happy about: the most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the economy added another 199,000 jobs in November (bringing the unemployment rate down to 3.7 percent), while 4 percent wage growth outpaced 3.2 percent inflation. Yet people have been giving “Bidenomics” very bad marks, with polls showing Americans are unhappy with the economy and Biden’s handling of it.

My take is that the economy is indeed shitty, and the left shouldn’t be afraid to say so. But it matters what we say the problems are, and how we propose to fix them.

Why are People Unhappy

I weighed in on this debate in In These Times in September, arguing that there might be a more complicated story about people’s financial situation underlying good news about wage and job growth, with many households seeing their financial situations worsen between 2021 and 2022 and their savings squeezed. I suggested that the collapse of the temporary COVID welfare state was in part to blame for these struggles and economic discontent. Generous unemployment benefits and childcare subsidies were stripped away, and now student debt repayments reactivated. 

Others, including Eric Levitz at New York Magazine and Will Stancil on Twitter, have since argued that welfare state reductions aren’t a satisfying explanation of voters’ unhappiness with the economy. I’m not sure. As Matt Bruenig observes, the percentage of people who saw their disposable income decline year-over-year increased from less than 45 percent in 2020 to more than 55 percent in 2022, probably due to the end of COVID welfare programs and high inflation in 2021 and 2022.

This “vibecession” discourse has in turn generated a meta-debate about whether it’s good or bad for the Left if people feel badly about the economy right now. Does widespread unhappiness with the Biden economy suggest that people are open to more radical policy changes? Or does it portend a turn away from the relatively expansionary fiscal policy that the Biden administration has pursued, back to the more austere neoliberalism of the Obama years?

What Should the Left Say?

To my mind, the answer to this question depends on who organizes them. The center is overseeing an economy that people are dissatisfied with, and the left and right both have opportunities to organize that dissatisfaction in support of their respective narratives and solutions. We need not know exactly what’s leading people to have the opinions about the economy they do to recognize this and to develop a smart response. 

That means, first, we don’t need to deny the economy’s bright spots or refuse to give Biden any credit. It is good that the administration spent big in the early days of the pandemic to help people and to facilitate a quick recovery from the COVID-19-generated downturn, for instance (it’s worth pointing out, however, that this was a continuation of the Trump administration’s policy in 2020). We don’t need to deny that the economy has been relatively good for workers in terms of low unemployment and rising real wages, especially among the lowest-paid workers; arguably the tight labor market has contributed to the recent uptick in labor militancy (though we should soberly remind ourselves that strikes and union density remain at historically low levels).

But, second, we don’t need to tell voters their feelings about the economy or their personal financial situations are wrong, or celebrate Joe Biden’s policies. Democratic Party partisans feel an understandable impulse to cheerlead Biden’s economic record. But there’s no reason for socialists to run defense for Biden and national Democrats, given their egregious policy failures. 

Dems were wrong to give up their leverage on passing the permanent welfare state expansion measures that were part of Build Back Better; the administration has fumbled on student loan forgiveness and has shamefully restarted federal student loan payments; the administration is also wrong to give no-strings-attached money to automakers for electric vehicle production, threatening to unleash a race to the bottom in the auto industry; despite the disaster that is US health insurance, Biden has quietly dropped the plan for a public option that he campaigned on; and so on… 

And of course, beyond those failures, Biden is not championing the kinds of decommodifying and worker-empowering reforms that socialists actually think people are entitled to: single-payer health care, free college for all, a real green jobs program to fight climate change while promoting full employment, a massive expansion of social housing, a shorter workweek, etc. These are all things that would materially improve people’s lives and make the economy suck much less for most people. We also hope they would empower workers to organize and demand more at their jobs, and help us build the political forces that can eventually win greater democracy in the workplace and over the economy as a whole. The left shouldn’t lower its ambitions on this front, nor should we be in the business of reducing other people’s expectations.

The fact is, telling people they’ve never had it so good just doesn’t cut the mustard as a political strategy; we’re not going to convince people living in a decades-long period of incredible inequality and insecurity that they should feel good because some economic indicators turned up for a year or two. Nor should we try to. Comparisons of how this economy stacks up to that of previous eras, or claims that this is “the best it’s been in years,” are likely to ring hollow when people compare their situation to their parents or grandparents.

Neither Doomerism nor Boosterism

In short, we don’t need to be doomers about the economy or boosters of Biden and the Democrats. This is important because centrists and conservatives have their own criticisms of Biden’s policies, and the left should be prepared to respond to both.

Critics on the right claim that excessive federal spending and too-loose monetary policy has fueled disastrously high inflation. In fact, inflation has come down considerably, and the rapid price rises of 2021–22 seem to have been caused by COVID-related supply shocks that commodity suppliers were able to take advantage of to raise prices. And the federal government was right to spend money on COVID relief programs and on investment in infrastructure and green energy (despite all the problems with the form that investment has taken and its broader geopolitical rationale.)

Yet we can’t let the right monopolize criticism of Bidenomics; we need to have our own narrative about what’s wrong and what is to be done. From a socialist perspective, the problem is that Democrats haven’t been nearly generous enough — that they let temporary welfare programs expire, that they are failing on student loan relief, and that they are not pursuing the ambitious program of decommodification proposed by Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns. We should work to channel popular discontent with the cost of living into left-wing demands for redistribution like single-payer health care and free childcare and free college for all. We should be championing a broad revival of the labor movement and militant strikes like the UAW’s as the key to raising living standards and clawing back wealth and power from the ultrarich.

In other words, we should tell people we agree that the economy sucks, and what we’d do to make it better. Sadly, no left politicians on the national stage, including Sanders, really seem to be doing this now — at least not in a clear, consistent, and full-throated way. In fairness, that may in part be due to all the political debate being focused on Biden’s disastrous Gaza policy, which may spell his electoral demise in 2024 regardless of what else he might do. But that’s no excuse for the left to lack a strong message on how to make the economy better.

Republished from Left Notes

Nick French is an activist in NYC-DSA and a member of DSA’s Bread and Roses caucus. He co-writes the Left Notes newsletter, which covers politics, the labor movement, and philosophy from a democratic socialist perspective.