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Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
One of the things we must always keep in mind about US presidential elections is that they are long, and a lot can happen over the election cycle. Like the 2024 economy, the political year ahead won’t be binary. It’s going to be volatile and surprise in all sorts of ways, even as we get down to the November wire.
So far, one of the most surprising things is why Joe Biden hasn’t yet received credit for America’s amazing post-Covid recovery. Some would say that economic data itself has become partisan, and that voter sentiment about the economy simply reflects existing political preferences. But I have always thought that pundits were getting too wrapped up in the early polling data predicting a Donald Trump general election victory. It’s early days, yes, but I think we may be about to see a Biden bump, for three reasons.
Consumer sentiment is catching up to the data, and the data continues to be good. Consumer sentiment is a lagging indicator that can take up to a year to catch up to a new data trend line. I think we’re beginning to see that happening now, with the Michigan index up over the past two months, and expectations of future inflation down. The incoming data tailwinds would seem to support this trend — 23 states have set new record lows for unemployment in 2023, and advance estimates of fourth-quarter gross domestic product show strong 3.3 per cent growth. What’s more, growth isn’t concentrated in just the usual places but has been strong around the country: national economic adviser Lael Brainard has been out touting the administration’s focus on “place-based” economics, particularly in left-behind areas that have favoured Trump. Likewise, Treasury secretary Janet Yellen is out in the heartland talking up Bidenomics.
Labour is starting to speak out in favour of Biden. I think the best proxy that Biden will have in 2024 is going to be the United Automobile Workers president Shawn Fain. Watch this video in which he calls Trump a “scab” while endorsing Biden. It’s very effective. It may well be that as Fain and other labour leaders go out on the road in support of him, it will mark an important pivot point in support. One of the things that helped Democrats in 2020 was that the primary field allowed people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to rally progressives and younger people in ways that Biden doesn’t. Labour may become the face of the election in ways that help the president (on that note, look out for a big roundtable of US labour leaders that I’ll be doing for the FT Weekend, later in February). For more on this idea, see a recent Prospect piece by Harold Meyerson.
Trump is about to become his own worst enemy. We’ve just seen it in the shocking E Jean Carroll verdict, which requires Trump to pay $83.3mn to her for defamation — four times what anyone expected, which is down in large part to the fact that he refused to back down and doubled down on his attacks. But on the political front, we saw glimmers of this in New Hampshire, where he was clearly threatened by Nikki Haley getting nearly half the vote, and went into “Mean Trump” mode (or as my colleague Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson put it, he “reverted to the mean”, bashing Haley, bashing Biden, and generally moving away from the more gracious vibe he showed in Iowa, where he won handily. We know from the past that when Trump is totally secure in his position, his more appealing and generally charismatic side comes out. He can be funny, even charming (though I use that word lightly and relatively). But when he gets the sense that he’s not in total control — of the narrative, of the votes, of the public — he gets angry, and goes into attack dog mode. That’s not going to help him swing any independent votes, and I think what we saw in NH reflects that.
Now, I don’t want to go overboard with this, or underestimate Trump. The man has animal spirits to beat the band, and there is plenty that is going on in the US from diminishing support for foreign wars to fears of China to anger about progressive wokeism and the possibility of another inflation bump that could, and may well, support him. But I also think that some of the tailwinds for Biden that we may be about to see are underestimated as well. Peter, would you agree? (Note to readers: in order to add more voices to the Swamp in an election year, Ed and I are going be debating a wider range of FT commentators over the course of 2024, and Peter Spiegel, the US managing editor, will be my new counterpart during campaign season.)
Listen to the first episode of the FT News Briefing’s weekly Swamp Notes podcast, where we’ll be talking about all the things happening in the 2024 US presidential election.
I finally got around to reading former New York Times opinion editor James Bennet’s very long but totally captivating piece in The Economist (where he is now Lexington writer) detailing how he was done in by the culture wars at the NYT. Bravo to The Economist for hiring him, and shame on NYT publisher AG Sulzberger for letting him be pushed out.
Mariana Mazzucato and Damon Silvers’s article in Foreign Affairs shows why the clean energy transition can be a win-win for labour. This is exactly the sort of thing that US Trade Representative Katherine Tai has advocated for with her “postcolonial” trade paradigm.
I have just ordered Calvin Trillin’s new book The Lede: Dispatches from a Life in the Press, which from the sound of this Dwight Garner review in the NYT will be unmissable. This man defines the term wordsmith. Rather than calling someone “heavy-set”, he describes them as having “a midsection that reflects a 40-year interest in Texan barbecue”.
In the Financial Times, rarely have I seen a more accurate description of our current economic condition than the one painted by Satyajit Das here. Also, I want to call out John Burn-Murdoch’s fascinating and widely shared look at the ideological divide emerging between Gen Z men and women.
And for those who want to know more about how and why the FT’s US-based journalists do their jobs, check out these videos made by some of the talent — including Ed and me! US economics editor Colby Smith joins Edward Luce on The Mall in Washington. On the San Francisco waterfront is our West Coast finance editor Tabby Kinder. And here in New York is US finance editor Brooke Masters, Unhedged columnist Robert Armstrong, and (wandering through Greenwich Village) a certain Rana Foroohar.
Peter Spiegel responds
Rana, at the risk of being a bit boring in my inaugural outing as your semi-permanent election year respondent here in the Swamp, I have to admit that I’ve been looking at the same consumer sentiment surveys and thinking the same thing. To plug our own research, I’d encourage Swampians to keep tabs on the FT-Michigan Ross poll, which we launched a year before election day with the idea of tracking exactly this: how will economic sentiment affect voter behaviour?
We’ve gone back into the field just this week for our February survey, but we were already seeing trends shift in Biden’s favour in the preceding three months. Since November, more Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the economy, more think the economy is getting better and more think his policies are helping.
The problem for him, though, is that while his numbers are improving, they’re improving from a very low base. Our top-line question every month is the old saw that Ronald Reagan used to beat Jimmy Carter in 1980: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” When we started polling in November, a paltry 14 per cent of Americans said they were better off financially since the day Biden took office. Last month, that number was 17 per cent. So it’s better news for the Biden campaign, but still far from good.
I’m very eager to find out what our February data shows when we get the results back in a few days — for the very reasons you cite, Rana: given the macroeconomic environment, Americans should be less grumpy about Bidenomics than they are. But as you note, there’s a long lag between economic performance and economic sentiment — and Biden needs to climb a very big hill before the economy is a net positive for his re-election chances.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to “Biden and the spectre of polycrisis”:
“Adam Tooze’s thoughtful comment on Ed Luce’s column correctly notes that younger Americans have largely abandoned aspirations, ‘vainglorious’ or otherwise, to global leadership, and are properly focused on America’s domestic ills. However, that is far from an entirely positive trend. What happens outside the United States, from planetary climate change to attacks on global shipping in the Red Sea to nuclear sabre-rattling by North Korea to the challenges posed by much larger anti-democratic regimes profoundly affects the economy and political future of the United States, and cannot be dealt with by a United States that retreats from its efforts at exercising leadership in the world. Of course, as Ed points out, those efforts have not always been well-meant or successful, but it’s neither feasible or right for America to stop trying to use its economic and military strength and remaining political credibility to address these challenges.” — Jonathan Blackman, New York
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