ROSSVILLE, Tenn. -- The sun was diving behind a canyon of boxcars, and men and women in hard hats shivered in silence. They could see Joe Biden a few hundred yards in the distance, inspecting heavy machinery, talking with men in suits, walking slowly toward the lecturn they clustered around like a campfire. “Please sit down,” he told them when he took the stage, “unless you’re standing up to get warm.”
It was a clear day but cool, as apt an economic metaphor as you will find in any weather pattern in America right now.
There was no bunting. No peppy music. In the thick of a presidential election, there was no candidate. There was something much more interesting, and less heartwarming, than any of that.
There was a sitting vice president who said, in one breath, “We’ve gone from crisis to recovery” in the American economy, and then a few moments later declared, “The middle class has been crushed, folks.”
If Biden had run for president, he would be the candidate aggressively defending his and President Obama’s economic legacy. But he passed on the race, and he has watched every major candidate, Democrat and Republican, descend into a pessimistic critique of the economy today. The leading Republican, Donald Trump, has harnessed the anti-immigrant, anti-trade anger of working-class white voters; the insurgent Democrat, Bernie Sanders, has ridden a rising liberal backlash against big banks and widening inequality.
Biden finds himself in an odd spot. He’s traveling the country, complaining that no candidate has embraced a more upbeat read of the past seven years of economic history.
At the same time, he’s acknowledging that those candidates are on to something: namely, just how much that recovery has bypassed the middle class, leaving American workers anxious, angry and hungry for an anti-establishment candidate such as Trump or Sanders.
“It’s legitimate criticism,” he said, in an interview high over Wisconsin on Air Force Two, before blaming the problem on congressional dysfunction. “If you take a look at what we proposed in those four years, the last four years, if we had done what we proposed, I believe the middle class would be back again.
“So it’s not that we didn’t focus on it. We just couldn’t get it done. We didn’t have the votes to get it done.”
Biden’s two-day swing up the Mississippi River celebrated the seventh anniversary of the biggest thing the administration did get done on the economy, the 2009 stimulus bill, which pumped $800 billion into highways, cargo terminals, renewable energy start-ups and dozens of other types of projects and tax cuts meant to spark economic activity.
In New Orleans, he hailed a $26 million port expansion that allowed cranes to offload container ships faster, which he said created a big batch of “jobs you can raise your family on.”
In St. Paul, Minn., he toured a once-decayed, now-restored bus and train depot, touting the construction jobs funded by the stimulus, plugging his well-known affinity for Amtrak and Bidenesquely telling reporters that he used to drive a bus commercially.
In Tennessee, just outside Memphis, he dropped in on a rail yard that used stimulus dollars to lay 70,000 feet of new rail, to speed deliveries from the East Coast. In the chill of the late afternoon, surrounded by workers from the yard and a few executive types in dark suits, he gave a compact defense of the Obama administration’s economic success, beginning with the stimulus but stopping short of the middle class.
Biden noted how much stronger the recovery has been in America, which passed a big stimulus (and employed very aggressive monetary policy), compared to Europe, which preferred budgetary austerity (and, for several years, much tighter money).
All of the speeches on the trip felt like the antithesis of campaign stops: quiet, reflective and only rarely combative. All ended with applause, none of it raucous. It was as good a reception as the country has given the Obama economic record.
Since Obama and Biden took office, the unemployment rate has fallen from a peak of near 10 percent in 2010 to just under 5 percent. The economy has created 7 million more jobs on net than it did in the eight years of the George W. Bush administration. Economic growth, adjusted for inflation, has averaged 1.4 percent per year, at a time when the countries in the Euro Area averaged almost no growth. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, at the height of its spending, the stimulus bill reduced unemployment by somewhere between 0.4 and 2 percentage points. New Commerce Department data released Friday showed Americans' incomes increasing at their fastest rate in six months.
Obama and Biden won a second term in 2012, in a re-election campaign that centered on economic issues.
Those results leave some economists skeptical of the idea that the Obama economy has given rise to Sanders and Trump.
“I think the American people realize that the U.S. economy is recovering from the deep recession of 2008 better than other countries,” said Alan Krueger, who championed middle-class issues as chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, “and that inequality was rising and the job market was polarized long before President Obama came to office.”
Many Americans, though, are just beginning to feel the warm winds of recovery, if they feel them at all.
Real median household income has fallen 2.3 percent from 2009 to 2014, the most recent year statistics are available. In 2014, it was $53,657, less than what it was in 1997 and just above what it was in 1989. The home ownership rate for the middle class is now more than 10 percent lower than it was in 2007, according to calculations by New York University economist Edward Wolff. Stock ownership rates are down 15 percent, and pension ownership is down 17 percent.
Seven in 10 Americans say they are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, according to Gallup.
Conservatives in particular blame Obama’s policies — including what they call growth-dampening regulations in his signature health care and financial reform bills — for holding back the middle class.
“The Obama administration made things worse than they needed to be, by prioritizing a progressive agenda over what the economy actually needed,” said Abby McCloskey, a middle-class focused conservative economist who advised GOP presidential candidates Rick Perry and Jeb Bush before each man dropped out of the race.
Liberals note how inequality has worsened in Obama’s recory. From 2009 to 2014, the economists Emanuel Saez and Thomas Pikkety calculate, incomes for the top 1 percent of American earners have risen 27 percent after adjusting for inflation. Incomes for the other 99 percent are up an average of 4.3 percent. Nearly 6 of every 10 dollars of the growth generated by the recovery has gone to the top 1 percent.
“There’s definitely an anger in the party, among progressives, about rising inequality,” said Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress think tank and a longtime adviser to Hillary Clinton. But, she added, “Both parties are reacting to the 15-year – not eight-year – problem of the country, which is wage stagnation.”
Biden says he understands why workers are upset. His critique echoes Sanders in some respects, blaming companies for buying back stock and hoarding profits abroad instead of investing in workers. “The way everything is stacked up now,” he said in the interview, “it’s all going to the 1 percent.”
He also said it’s important for him to make the case that the recovery could have been much slower, and the pain of the recession much deeper, if not for the administration’s policies. He said it’s a mistake that Clinton and Sanders, in particular, aren’t also making that case.
“Even my own folks say, ‘jeez, Joe, you got 60 to 70 percent of the American people thinking we’re going in the wrong direction. Don’t try to buck it,’” he said. “What do you mean, don’t try to buck it? If everybody doesn’t buck it, guess what, it’s gospel.”
Later, he added: “I just have a different sense of how we should be talking about the issues that face us, to enhance the possibility that we keep the White House, and don’t have everything we fought for all this time undone.”
There’s more than a legacy at stake in how Americans view the Obama economy. Liberal economists say that if the idea cements among voters that Obama’s policies failed, especially the stimulus, then the next president will have less ability to push new spending plans. Those economists believe more government spending may be needed to help the economy erase the damage from the recession once and for all — or to respond to another downturn when it hits.
“It’s extremely important that by the time we hit the next recession people realize that a lot of what we did worked,” said Jared Bernstein, who served as Biden’s top economic adviser in the early years of the administration. “Because if they don’t, they’re not going to reapply it, and there’s going to be a lot of unnecessary pain.”
Biden pressed that point at the railyard outside Memphis, in a speech he appeared to cut short for the cold. He said America needed to invest more in ports, rails, roads and other infrastructure — a proposal that has been a staple of Obama’s budgets since the stimulus passed — in order to lead the world economy in the decades to come.
He said he was more hopeful about the country than he’d ever been. He ended with a story about Abraham Lincoln building the transcontinental railroad in the middle of the Civil War. “The sun has gone down,” he concluded. “Let’s go home.”
He began to shake hands in the crowd. A worker in a hard hat lingered nearby, smoking a cigarette, complaining of the cold. He said he’d been on the job all day, that he’d liked the speech just fine, and that he didn’t care much for politics.
How, he was asked, is the economy doing around here?
He took a last drag, tossed the butt away, and turned quickly to leave. “I’m going to leave that one alone,” he said, and then he was gone.