The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden gets a strong jobs report, but a sour mood still prevails

With Republicans bullish about November’s elections, Democrats have only a few months to change the trajectory of the election year

President Biden discusses the March jobs report on April 1 at the White House. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Friday’s robust jobs report from the Labor Department offered a welcome, if temporary, respite for the White House in a season of otherwise tough economic news. But Democrats know better than to see the employment gains as the beginning of a change in their fortunes.

The Labor Department said the economy added 431,000 jobs last month, with the unemployment rate dropping to 3.6 percent. The economy has now added 400,000 or more jobs in each of the past 11 months, which the Wall Street Journal reported is the longest such stretch dating back in records to 1939.

Economists attribute the thriving jobs market to a continued loosening of pandemic-related restrictions (though a subvariant of the omicron variant is looming). More businesses are bringing workers back to the office, and many Americans are trying to return to pre-pandemic habits and activities, though cautiously. After two years of disruption, the economy has now gained back more than 90 percent of all the jobs lost at the beginning of the pandemic.

All of that is news that President Biden and the Democrats can tout as progress. For a political reality check, however, here are some of the headlines on the Gallup organization’s website this past week, based on their polling in March:

  • “Inflation Dominates Americans’ Economic Concerns in March”
  • “Americans’ Energy Worries Surge”
  • “Americans Remain Largely Dissatisfied With Direction of U.S.”
  • “Congressional Approval Remains Low in March”
  • “Biden’s Job Rating Still Tepid; Covid-19, Russia Handling Up”

Take those headlines one at a time. Gallup finds that 21 percent of Americans cite inflation or gas prices as the nation’s most important problem, with another 11 percent citing the general economy. That’s about double the number who named those three issues as the biggest problem in January.

Nearly half of all Americans say they worry a great deal about the affordability and availability of energy. A year ago it was 37 percent, and in 2020 it was 22 percent, at a time when energy prices were low because of reduced economic activity due to the pandemic.

Higher prices and other concerns have helped to keep Americans in a gloomy mood about the direction of the country. About one quarter of all Americans say they are satisfied with the direction, a level that has not changed much since last summer, with the exception of January, when there was a dip during the worst of the omicron surge.

In recent months, Democrats have become more optimistic about the direction of the country, according to Gallup, but their level of satisfaction remains well below the high marks of a year ago.

Congress as an institution gets low marks, with 21 percent of Americans saying they approve of the job the legislative branch is doing. That’s been consistent since last fall but is markedly lower than it was in the spring of 2021, at a time when pieces of Biden’s agenda had either been passed or looked like they were moving toward passage.

Growing dissatisfaction with Congress among Democrats has produced nearly all of the overall decline over the past year. The Gallup report notes that, after Biden was elected and after Democrats won control of the Senate to go along with their majority in the House, approval of Congress among Democrats surged by 50 percentage points to 61 percent.

As Biden’s Build Back Better legislation ran aground in the Senate and as other Democratic priorities such as voting rights made no progress in the upper chamber, approval of Congress by Democrats dropped from that high point to 38 percent last June and 26 percent in January. Today it stands at 35 percent.

Meanwhile, as nearly every public poll has shown, the president’s approval rating remains in the low 40s and has not changed significantly in months. His numbers began to tumble last summer, coinciding with the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, and they have not since recovered. He has, however, seen some improvement in assessments of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The jobs market might be churning in a positive direction, and should be cause for crowing at the White House. But it was the action Biden announced on Thursday to stem fast-rising gasoline prices that underscored why Democrats are so worried about the November midterm elections and why Republicans are so bullish.

Biden sought to mitigate the pain of higher gas prices by announcing a historically large dispersal from the Strategic Petroleum Reservea million barrels a day for the next six months — while at the same time trying to prod energy companies to return some of their profits to consumers and to produce more oil and gas in the short run.

His powers to battle inflation, however, are limited. Some of the rise in prices results from the infusion of trillions of dollars in spending by the federal government. Some is the result of pent-up consumer demand outrunning supplies. Some of it comes from pandemic-related disruptions of global supply chains, which is a problem likely to ripple through the world economy for a long time as companies and nations readjust to a post-pandemic world. The latest surge in gas prices is the result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In this environment, Republicans are understandably optimistic about their prospects for November’s midterm elections. With Republicans needing only a handful of seats to take control of the House, many Democrats have all but conceded a change in power in that chamber come next January. The main question is what the Republican margin will look like.

The potential playing field is large, giving Republicans plenty of opportunities for gains. Officials at the National Republican Congressional Committee now say they will be looking at 72 Democratic-held districts, though many of those will be difficult to flip. Meanwhile, the House Majority PAC, a Democratic group, said it is prepared to spend roughly $100 million in 51 media markets between now and Election Day, an indication of just how much defense Democrats will be playing.

Democrats need a change in the national mood: events or things to alter what Gallup and other pollsters continue to report. Here are three factors to watch:

  • Whether the public mood brightens as people try to move on from the pandemic.
  • What happens to inflation and whether the Federal Reserve can slow things down without triggering a recession.
  • The war in Ukraine and what a prolonged conflict might do to the world economy and public sentiment toward the Biden administration.

For now, the good jobs report is something for Biden and the Democrats to point to as progress, though recently, monthly employment numbers haven’t had any real political impact. Democrats have only a few months left to begin turning the lines on all these polls upward.

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