/Here’s How Democrats Can Talk About the Economy

Here’s How Democrats Can Talk About the Economy


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It’s an awkward thing: Democrats want to replace Donald Trump as president, and even though he’s unpopular and a majority of voters share a lot of the usual Democratic complaints about him, the economy happens to be pretty good.

I don’t just mean that the economy is good on paper — that certain data points like stock prices look strong, even if that may not reflect typical experiences of ordinary Americans. As Matt Yglesias notessurvey data about the economy is also strong: Regular people report feelings about the economy that, while not at their highest readings ever, are generally higher than they ever were during the Bush or Obama administrations.

Matt has a good rundown of most of the numbers, but I’d also highlight Gallup’s poll question about whether the condition of the economy is “excellent, good, only fair or poor.” In November, 55 percent of respondents said excellent or good, which doesn’t sound like an amazing number, but in general the public has a bias toward negativity in answering this question, and the recent readings under Trump are higher than they ever were under Barack Obama or George W. Bush. (The public has a negative bias on other questions too: People consistently overestimate inflation and unemployment rates if you ask about those in surveys, in good economies and bad.)

The broad story in the survey data is that people feel better about the economy now, on average, than they have in some time. But I do have a few thoughts for Democrats about how they can argue that people should fire the president anyway.

First, as Matt notes, elections are not solely about the economy, and there are prior examples of elections where incumbent parties lost in strong economic conditions due to discontent over non-economic matters. (1976 and 2000 are key examples he gives.) I would also note there is an opportunity to pivot to the general election. Democrats tend to have much more negative views of the Trump economy than Republicans do, which is consistent with a historical pattern that members of the out-of-power party tend to view the economy much more negatively than members of the in-power party. So, while “actually, this economy is bad” might sound out of touch to a lot of swing voters in a general election, it’s probably a fine message for the primary.

Finally, I think it’s worth talking about the difference between facts and opinions. The GDP growth rate is a fact. The unemployment rate is a fact when measuring a given definition of unemployment, though people might have varying opinions about how best to define unemployment. (Should you count people who want a full-time job but can only find part-time work as unemployed?) But “the economy is good” is an opinion, and there is at least some room for candidates to change voters’ minds about it — to argue that while the economy has been expanding for a decade, there are various reasons to believe you should be able to enjoy a higher standard of living than you have right now.

It’s important, I think, to avoid accusing voters of false consciousness. As Matt says, you should acknowledge people’s feeling that, as they mostly tell Gallup, it is easier now than at most times to find a quality job. But you can pivot to a discussion of possibility: About what it would be like to have a tighter labor market more often, or to worry less about the security of your health insurance plan. Especially with health care, this offers an opportunity to pivot to an issue where Democrats have a key polling advantage over Republicans.

As a business columnist, a nice thing about my job is that essentially everything is part of the economy. There’s a lot of room to wander, topic-wise. Democratic candidates don’t have to ignore the reality of public opinion to embrace that breadth and find ways to turn the economy issue to their advantage. Talk about a part of the economy that is bad and that you think you can make better — you may find a receptive audience.

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