WASHINGTON, D.C. — Stocks are near record highs. Growth was surprisingly strong last year. And once-hot inflation has begun to cool. But so far, U.S. adults are feeling only slightly better about the economy.
A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds that 35% of U.S. adults call the national economy good. That’s an uptick from 30% who said so late last year and up from 24% who said so a year ago. While 65% still call the economy poor, that’s also an improvement from a year ago, when 76% called it poor.
Voters’ confidence in the economy could be a pivotal factor in this year’s presidential election as it is consistently rated as a top issue. Recent data on the economy has shown that growth accelerated last year even as inflation returned closer to the Federal Reserve’s 2% target, proving wrong a multitude of Wall Street and academic economists who said a recession would be the consequence of efforts to lower inflation.
President Joe Biden and his aides have taken to highlighting the economic positives as consumer sentiment has rebounded. Biden is also drawing an open contrast with former President Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner. Trump supporters remember his tenure with pride for how the economy fared, but his term was marred by job losses tied to the coronavirus pandemic.
The evidence of a stronger economy has yet to spill over into greater support for Biden. The new poll puts his approval rating at 38%, which is roughly where that number has stood for most of the past two years. Biden’s approval rating on handling the economy is similar, at 35%.
Respondents interviewed for the survey often expressed their views on the economy through a personal lens. Some judged it based on their grocery bills and prices at the gasoline pump. Others assessed the economy based on their appreciating investments. Housing prices mattered, and so did job prospects for their adult children and the upward trajectory of the federal debt.
Molly Kapsner, 58, lives on a farm in Wisconsin and thinks the economy is doing “pretty well” because she has three children finishing college this year and all of them have job options. She voted for Biden in 2020 and plans to do so again.
“He has a lot on his plate right now and he’s doing quite well,” she said. “He’s just putting his head down and doing his job and not trying to create a circus in our country.”
David Veksler, who voted for the libertarian candidate, Jo Jorgenson, in 2020, said he’s worried about the rising federal debt. The 43-year-old software engineer manager from Denver said the borrowing will hurt growth in the long term, even if his investments are doing well now.
“I think he’s similar to his predecessors in furthering unsustainable deficits,” Veksler said of Biden. “I’m as negative on him as I was on Trump.”
Harry Broadnax, a 62-year-old retiree, said he increasingly thinks about the economy in relation to the increase in migrants illegally crossing the U.S. southern border. He feels their presence is diverting financial resources from U.S. citizens.
“I would like to see them block up the border like Trump wanted,” said Broadnax, who is from North Carolina, adding for emphasis, “I’m a Democrat.”
Broadnax doesn’t see himself voting for Biden or Trump, whose criminal indictments worry him.
The Biden administration has tried to put a greater focus on the big numbers used to assess the overall economy, making its case through hard data.
Lael Brainard, director of the White House National Economic Council, told a group of reporters last week that skeptics about the economy had overlooked how Biden’s policies boosted the labor market and repaired supply chains wrecked by the pandemic.
“The big miss here was not to understand how much, by surging back into the workforce, by addressing supply chains that were completely broken, those inflationary pressures would come down,” she said.
Trump has said that the economy is “fragile” and “running off the fumes of what we did.” The Republican front-runner has said on social media that stocks are rising because he is likely to return to the White House. That claim overlooks the influence of the Fed, as well as the fact that average annual growth has been higher under Biden so far than it was during Trump’s term.
There continues to be a political split in how people think about the economy. As a consequence, there might be a limit on how much Biden’s approval numbers can climb even if the economy keeps thriving as it did last year.
Democrats remain far more likely than Republicans to describe the economy as good, 58% to 15%. Still, views have improved at least slightly since the same time last year, when 41% of Democrats and 8% of Republicans called the economy good.
Sixty-five percent of Democrats, but just 7% of Republicans, say they approve of Biden’s handling of the economy, both largely unchanged since late last year.
However, the poll did show a brighter outlook on the economy from some key voter demographics. Since a year ago, a disproportionate increase in sentiment has come from college graduates and older adults — two groups that tend to turn out to vote at higher rates. There is also the possibility that voters will care more about the personalities of the Democratic and Republican nominees than they do about the state of the economy.
Deborah Shields, 70, who works in direct sales, said she’s noticed an improvement in the economy as her investments have improved. Yet she said her opposition to Trump will determine her vote in November.
“I would never, never, ever vote for Trump,” said Shields, who lives in Orlando, Florida. “He’s a megalomaniac.”
Richard Tunnell, an Air Force veteran on disability, voted for Trump in 2020 and would do so again if the former president is on the ballot. The 30-year-old from Huntsville, Texas is a hard “no” on Biden.
“He’s just a puppet,” Tunnell said. “They’ll boot people out like Trump who give a crap, but they’ll put in people like Biden who they can put on strings and manipulate.”