What’s behind America’s “vibecession”?

It’s the biggest political head-scratcher of the season: President Biden has gotten a lot of questions right on traditional economic tests, but voters refuse to give him passing marks.

By all conventional measures, the economy under Biden has thrived. Since Biden took office, 15 million jobs have been created. Unemployment has been below 4% for two and a half years – the longest stretch in over fifty years. Inflation has cooled considerably from its peak in mid-2022. Wages are growing and for a year now have been outpacing inflation. Low-wage workers in particular have seen historically high wage growth. Both the average and median American household have accumulated more wealthGDP growth is higher in the US than among its peers. The list goes on.

While not economic “measures” per se, the Biden administration has also overseen some pretty remarkable wins for workers. They have banned noncompete agreementsraised the threshold for overtime pay, and taken a series of actions to eliminate corporate “junk fees.” Biden’s NLRB has issued a number of rulings that have strengthened unions and worker protections and the FTC and Justice Department have worked in concert to reinvigorate antitrust enforcement.

This astonishing level of economic progress stands in stark contrast to what we saw under former President Trump, whose greatest economic achievement was a massive tax bill that delivered a windfall to the wealthy and corporations. But judging by recent polling, as things stand today, voters aren’t giving Biden credit for his achievements. According to one poll, just 36% of voters approve of Biden’s job performance – the lowest approval rating of his presidency. Another poll found that nearly 74% of voters regard the economy under Biden as only fair or poor, while another found that 55% of voters believe Trump would do a better job with the economy than Biden would with a second term in office (compared to 33% of those who believe Biden would).

This disparity between traditional economic indicators and the way people feel about the economy has been going on for almost two years now. Economics writer Kyla Scanlon first coined the term “vibecession” to describe this phenomenon in June 2022.

So what gives here? Why is there such a discrepancy between Biden’s economic scores from traditional economists and voters? The country is not in an economic recession, but why are the “vibes” about the economy off? We’re not political scientists so we won’t pretend to know the precise answer, but we do have some ideas that might help, at least, to solve this confounding political puzzle.

The first involves the media. Americans are inundated with news and information 24/7. There are hundreds of print and online news outlets, thousands of cable and non-cable TV news channels, thousands of radio stations and podcasts, countless blogs and vlogs, and, of course, dozens of social media platforms that are constantly throwing news in Americans’ faces. With so much media competing for people’s limited attention, the reality is, in order to entice people to stop scrolling for more than three seconds, you need to do or say something provocative. There are a lot of ways to do this, but one tried-and-true method is to go negative. It’s no accident that people are more likely to click on and share negative headlines than they are positive ones. (You can blame our brains for this one – they’re hardwired to consume and remember the gloomy stuff.)

That said, one reason why Americans may be so down on the economy is because economic reporting has become systemically more negative since 2018. It also doesn’t help that the presumptive GOP presidential nominee is Donald Trump. Trump is a master when it comes to breaking through and being heard in today’s media landscape. If we didn’t know any better, we’d think “provocative” – particularly the caustic and hate-filled sort – was his middle name. So when he screams about the economy being a “cesspool of ruin” at a campaign rally, it will undoubtedly be reported on – and believed by voters.

But there’s more to the “vibecession” conundrum than negative media reporting. Something else that may explain the divergence between economic measures and the way people feel about the economy has to do with people’s lived experiences with the economy, particularly with regard to the cost of living and wages.

While it is true that inflation has cooled and prices aren’t rising as fast as they were two summers ago, the fact is that prices haven’t gone down either and instead remain at levels unacceptably high to consumers. Prices on everything from gas to rent to groceries are up a whopping 19.4% since Biden took office. Also, interest rates are still high thanks to the Fed, which makes it more expensive to borrow, buy things like homes and cars, and pay off credit cards. There’s just no getting around the fact that inflation – and the resulting high cost of living – is one of the most important issues for voters in this election cycle, and that people are blaming the man in charge.

As mentioned, wages have actually outpaced inflation and increased workers’ overall purchasing power, and that’s a good thing, even if extreme sticker shock is making it hard to see at the moment for most people. But here’s the thing: “better” is not “enough” when it comes to wages. Between 2019 and 2023, workers in the 10th percentile experienced a record 12.1% growth in real wages, and now make $13.52 an hour. That’s a great improvement. But research has found that any hourly wage below $15 is insufficient to meet a one-person basic family budget in any county or city in the country, which means that no worker in the 10th percentile – not to mention, none of the 19 million people who make less than $15 an hour in America – makes a “living wage” high enough to afford basic essentials, even in the lowest cost-of-living areas of the country. In short, there’s been progress on the wage front and that deserves to be celebrated, but there’s still a lot more work to be done when it comes to raising wages to allow workers to meet the cost of living. Workers rightfully want more action from their elected officials in this regard.

Here is the key to what Biden should do to turn the ship around on his electoral prospects and convince voters that he is the better candidate when it comes to the economy. He should keep pushing as hard as he can to promote the strides his administration has made on the economy. But more importantly, he should meet voters where they are, recognize their fiscal pain, and loudly commit to doing more to raise wages and bring down costs – loudly enough to break through in today’s media landscape. We have spoken extensively about the need for Biden to promote raising the minimum wage and the corporate price gouging that is actually driving inflation. Now, it is time for the president to heed our call and lead on these issues, using the bully pulpit to its full advantage.

Polling can’t always be believed, especially several months from Election Day – but it shouldn’t be ignored either. And neither should the majority of Americans who refuse to settle for a little bit of “better” with the economy and who demand action on wages and the cost of living.

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