President Biden’s honeymoon phase with the stock market has officially ended.
In President Biden’s first year in office, the benchmark S&P 500 seemed to only go one direction – up. Markets shrugged off an attempted insurrection, the lingering Covid-19 pandemic, and political deadlock in D.C., and the S&P 500 notched 70 record highs in 2021, rising 27%.
2022 has been a different story.
Surging inflation and the Federal Reserve’s attempts to cool off the economy are causing stocks to come crashing down to earth, and the benchmark index is now deeply negative for the year.
Democrats already face an uphill battle to retain their congressional majorities in this year’s midterm elections, and the market’s deeply negative trajectory in 2022 further complicates the party’s political prospects.
To be sure, the stock market is not the economy, and the American economy is in fact strong in many respects, which President Biden has repeatedly tried to underscore. But everyday Americans – who are watching the value of their nest eggs decline significantly – are not convinced.
The stock market is a visible statistic that many Americans use as a barometer for the health of the overall economy. And when the stock market melts down as it has throughout this year, the public notices.
Only 20% of Americans say the U.S. economy is “excellent” or “good” despite historically low unemployment and increased wages for American workers, according to recent polling by Economist/YouGov.
As Peter Boockvar, Chief Investment Officer at Bleakley Advisory Group, pointed out, “the economy and the stock market are intertwined. A sharp drop in the stock market will impact economic activity.” Clearly, its already impacting how Americans view the economy, and appears to also be affecting consumer behavior.
Unlike his predecessor – who used the Dow Jones Industrial Average as an unofficial approval rating – President Biden has paid very little lip service to the stock market, focusing instead on touting macroeconomic indicators such as low 3.6% unemployment and wage gains for American workers.
However, these broader, more abstract economic gauges are not nearly as visible as a downturn in the stock market, and are certainly not as palpable as inflation, which remains at a 40-year high.
As a result, Americans largely do not believe that the president and his party are capable of leading on the economy, and recent polling underscores the political challenges of the electorate’s economic pessimism for Democrats.
Just 38% of Americans say they approve of President Biden’s handling of the economy – including only 27% of Independents, who are a crucial constituency in any election – per recent polling conducted by Reuters/Ipsos.
In the same vein, a Politico/Morning survey revealed that, by a 10-point margin, registered voters trust Republicans (46%) over Democrats (36%) to handle the economy. The G.O.P.’s edge is even stronger among Independents, only 27% of whom trust Democrats to better-manage the economy, compared to 39% who trust Republicans.
For their part, Republicans have already seized on the market’s downturn, and are clearly intending to weaponize the issue in the midterms. This week, Congressman Jim Jordan (R-OH) tweeted: “your 401k misses President Trump.”
We can expect the G.O.P. to ramp up economic attacks like these – focusing on the stock market’s downturn and high levels of inflation – between now and the midterms.
While Democrats will be working to shift the national conversation away from the economy and toward the issue of abortion rights in light of the Supreme Court’s intention to overturn Roe v. Wade, it is difficult to envision a scenario under which abortion supplants the economy as the top midterm issue.
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Americans will still be experiencing higher prices for gas and goods in November, and if the stock market continues on its current downward trajectory, will vote against Democrats because of it, fair or not. Though President Biden is not unilaterally responsible for the stock market or for inflation by any means, Americans do assign responsibility to the president.
Nearly three-quarters (73%) of Americans believe President Biden has “a lot” or “some” responsibility for rising inflation, and nearly two-thirds (63%) of Americans believe the president has “a lot” or “some” responsibility for the downtrend in the stock market, per recent Economist/YouGov polling.
Ultimately, as the sinking market continues to drain Americans’ retirement savings, voters’ economic pessimism will continue to grow, putting Democrats at even greater risk of a historic rout in the midterm elections.
Douglas Schoen is a Democratic political consultant.