The American economy is booming, if not in most voters’ minds

Polls find that despite strong employment and reduced inflation, citizens are in no mood to credit Biden — which could buoy Trump’s campaign.

Three panelists at the Cascade PBS Ideas Festival

Ryan Knutson and Kate Linebaugh, co-hosts of The Journal podcast, talk with The Wall Street Journal’s senior political correspondent Molly Ball about economic anxiety and the election at Saturday’s Cascade PBS Ideas Festival. (Christopher Nelson for Cascade PBS)

By all the traditional metrics, the American economy is booming. Except for one: public opinion.

Poll after poll finds Americans overwhelmingly pessimistic about the state of the economy and distrustful of the elites in charge of steering it, although many tell pollsters their personal financial situation is OK. 

Perhaps the person most affected by the jumbled economic picture is President Biden, whose re-election chances hinge to some degree on his ability to remind voters that jobs are still plentiful and inflation has slowed from its historic peak in 2022. Financial analysts even appear cautiously optimistic that a so-called “soft landing” will continue – but it’s a message many voters appear uninterested in hearing.

“If he pulls [the soft landing] off it is a pretty commendable achievement, but it’s not something voters are in the mood to give him much credit for,” said Molly Ball, senior political correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Ball spoke to a crowd of hundreds as part of the Cascade PBS Ideas Festival on Saturday, May 4, recording a live episode of the newspaper’s daily podcast The Journal. 

Co-hosts Ryan Knutson and Kate Linebaugh asked Ball why Biden has struggled to claim credit for a robust economic recovery – at least on paper – in contrast with Trump’s enduring ability to portray himself as a successful businessman who presided over a pre-COVID economy marked by easy money and high profits, at least for some. Trump has also managed to position himself as a political outsider, reflecting popular frustration and cynicism toward the political establishment.

“Anger has always been a big part of his brand and I think a big part of why he appeals to people who feel bad about stuff,” Ball said. “A lot of candidates go out there and sort of say to the electorate, ‘I see that you are angry and I understand and I sympathize.’ Trump doesn’t do that. He says, ‘I’m angry too.’”

One irony often lost in the partisan scrum, Ball said, is that Trump and Biden made some similar economic choices during their terms. Biden largely continued Trump’s tariffs and has continued to embrace protectionist economic policies in an attempt to bolster American manufacturing of things like microchips and solar panels. The bipartisan turn against free-trade agreements and toward industrial policy in both parties, Ball said, would have been unthinkable just a decade or two ago, when Republicans and Democrats alike both reliably supported things like the North American Free Trade Agreement and China’s admission to the World Trade Organization.

But how much does the economy matter to voters? Ball noted that while perceptions about the economy typically factor in elections, both Trump’s and Biden’s campaigns have drawn voter attention to other issues like immigration and abortion rights. Biden’s campaign has also sought to frame the election as a referendum on democracy, highlighting Trump’s authoritarian aspirations, his attempts to consolidate executive power and overturn the 2020 election.

Ultimately the 2024 election may come down to what version of reality the American public believes – Biden’s optimism about a “resurgent America that’s making steady progress towards a future of shared prosperity” or Trump’s version of a “dystopian backwater on a path to ruin.”

Right now, Ball said, voters are more attuned to see the country with swamp-colored glasses.

“The mood of the electorate seems to be much more dystopian backwater than morning in America,” she said. “I think they’re seeing things broadly the way Trump wants them to.”


To hear more of the conversation, watch the broadcast on Cascade PBS at 7 p.m. on May 12, or streaming the next day on and Listen to all sessions on the Cascade PBS Ideas Festival podcast.

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About the Authors & Contributors

photo of Brandon

Brandon Block

Brandon Block is an investigative reporter at Cascade PBS, focused on following the federal recovery money flowing into Washington state.