Near the base of the Rainbow Mountains, Daniel Busby looks up longingly at his two-story “dream” townhouse, with the sliding glass door on its second floor, the balcony that wraps around the master bedroom, the five-minute walk from his kids’ elementary school.
“I just fell in love,” said Busby, 33, doing a chef’s kiss and smacking his lips together. “And then we started doing the math.”
The gregarious fry cook has enjoyed the windfalls of pandemic economic recovery overseen by President Biden. The president’s stimulus plan gave lower-wage workers more leverage to demand higher pay from their employers, with those in the service sector—like Busby—seeing particularly robust gains.
He went from being unemployed and working part-time at $15 an hour during the pandemic to a full-time job at the Paris Hotel, mostly at the Martha Stewart franchise, earning $19 an hour preparing a risotto dish and, his favorite, the whole chicken dinner. Busby and his wife now make a combined salary of just under six figures—a previously unimaginable sum.
But the gains have not kept up with rising costs, and that has become a major issue for voters like him. When Biden took the oath of office in January 2021, the average monthly mortgage payment in Las Vegas was about $1,200, according to calculations by Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. That number, for new mortgages, has soared to $2,350 today due to rising interest rates and robust housing prices—the outer edge of what Busby was willing to spend.
By many measures, the U.S. economy is a great success story—recession fears have fallen, along with gas prices and the unemployment rate, while manufacturing construction is up along with nominal wages and the stock market. The United States has grown faster since COVID-19 than any peer country. Gas prices, once averaging over $5 a gallon, are near to $3. The Federal Reserve projects three interest rate cuts in 2024 that could help buyers like Busby.
But the kitchen-table experience of Biden’s first term—a roller coaster of COVID adjustment and international shocks—has meant that many voters have experienced the last few years as a time of relative economic hardship. Despite rising wages, voters as a group lost spending power during 2021 and 2022 and have only recently climbed out of the hole. And even though wages are now outpacing inflation, prices are still continuing to rise: The latest government report showed inflation up 3.4 percent relative to the year before, fueling the anxiety even amid positive economic indicators.
A broad and diverse cross-section of American voters say they are experiencing the Biden economy as a challenging time of rising prices and high interest rates, according to interviews with more than 80 voters in four parts of the country—Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Phoenix and rural Georgia—that will play a major role in choosing the next president.
Adjusted for inflation, the per capita disposable income of U.S. residents rose nearly 1 percent from October 2021 to October 2023, a period that excludes the extraordinary one-time stimulus payments when Biden arrived, according to calculation by Robert Shapiro, a Democratic economist who advised Bill Clinton as president. By comparison, per capita disposable income, after inflation, grew about 7 percent under Donald Trump, during the first 34 months of his presidency.
The good news for Democrats is that the growth in spending power has been picking up over the last year at 3.7 percent through November, potentially setting the stage for a banner 2024, when wages will continue to grow even as the rate of inflation continues to fall.
“If incomes continue to rise rapidly over the next year, people will accept it by the election, especially since Biden’s record on jobs and growth is so much stronger,” Shapiro predicts. “Biden can overcome the fact that his income record—the growth of income—will not be strong over the whole term.”
But that is not the nation’s present-day reality. Biden’s polling on the economy has fallen with consumer confidence since he got into office, only recently stabilizing as confidence has begun to rebound. Wages are up, but the sting of higher grocery, coffee and restaurant bills remain. The president is still looking for credit from the budding manufacturing renaissance brought about by recent bipartisan legislation, though relatively few projects have been announced or begun production yet.
White House advisers are optimistic that the American public will soon internalize the good news and give the president credit before November. His political advisers note that other presidents who won reelection, like Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, overcame challenging first-term economic conditions.
“We’re seeing real progress,” said Jared Bernstein, chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, in a statement. “We have more work to do as we execute President Biden’s agenda, a sharp contrast with congressional Republicans’ plans to cut taxes for the wealthy and big corporations while raising health care and prescription drug costs for hard-working American families.”
People like Busby, who voted twice for Obama before sitting out the 2016 and 2020 elections, are not sure they will vote for Biden in 2024—indecision that could tip the scale in a narrowly divided country. He has chosen, for the moment, to stay with his wife and two daughters, ages 10 and 6, in their 1,100-square-foot Vegas apartment, where the rent recently jumped from $1,100 to $1,600 a month.
After touring more than 30 houses, relentlessly monitoring Zillow and Redfin, and investigating all the first-time home buyer programs they could find, they have put their dream on hold.
“We work full-time hours, but we still can’t afford things. You think, ‘I work full time. I should be able to afford a house,'” he said. “I don’t want to come home one day and then realize I have to pack up and leave. It’s that sense of stability we’re missing.”
‘It’s really hard to keep up’
MILWAUKEE – Ceree Huley, 75, looked around Gee’s Clippers, the Black-owned Milwaukee barber shop where he works. “This place on a Thursday would be full of people,” he said of the those years before the pandemic.
“I don’t know what the reason they’re not here. … A lot of people are going to do it to themselves,” Huley said, referring to individual haircuts. “Or are they hiding from the costs of the prices that went up 10 dollars or 5 dollars? That could be a factor too.”
After 50 years as a barber, Huley has seen his own wages go up recently but is also paying more for rent after moving to a new place. Unlike some of his customers, he doesn’t blame Biden for his economic situation.
“I don’t know why it is, it seems like the economy gets worse,” said Zontayveon Mosley, a 21-year-old warehouse supervisor, who had come in for a cut. “For the average person who’s making $45,000 to $50,000 a year, it’s really hard to keep up.”
He said he would have backed Biden in 2020, but didn’t vote. He added that he will not vote for him this year and would consider supporting Trump, citing U.S. aid to other countries and the economy.
“Like giving billions of dollars to support others, when we have people that can’t eat, we have people that can’t pay bills, it’s just insane to me,” he said. “I feel like most Black people just lean towards Democrats. But I don’t know, entering the workforce and making money, I own a home. I’ve got to worry about interest rates and all of that. I feel like Trump is a better businessman.”
A stream of Black customers provided a nuanced take on the economy under Biden as they came in and out of the barber shop – decorated with basketball hoops, framed photos of athletes and the forest green Milwaukee Bucks logo sprawled across a gymnasium-style floor, razors buzzing in the background.
The economy here has largely tracked national trends, with weekly wages just below the national average and a nearly identical unemployment rate. William Robinson, a 47-year-old FedEx package handler, said he ends the month with less money than he starts, and it’s “kind of more survival than living” when he goes food shopping. He supported Obama both in 2008 and 2012, but said he will not vote for either Biden or Trump in 2024, describing them as “pretty much the same.”
“You can’t set prices. Inflation, you really don’t control none of that. Really it’s all the stuff that I can’t control that’s kind of making it difficult,” said Robinson, who added that he now needs to make adjustments between wants and needs. “Everybody got their little cheat foods, you know what I’m saying? Like the little cakes outside of the nutritious stuff. You just can’t enjoy it. And even with the stuff that’s nutritious, you got to prioritize, you know?”
Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll, said that voter views of the president and the economy “moved in tandem with objective economic indicators tolerably well up until the early 2000s.” Since then, partisanship has become more powerful and the link has begun to break.
In a recent survey, twice as many respondents said they’d heard about inflation compared with the unemployment rate. As for voters’ current perceptions of the economy, Franklin sees a combination of partisan bias and the effect of inflation on real disposable income, especially “coming after this sugar high of transfer payments in the pandemic years.”
It’s a trend that cuts both ways. Ken McClendon, a 51-year-old in the health-care-manufacturing business, said his wages have gone up but his economic situation was better before COVID, given that “everything is more expensive now.”
Biden’s handling of the economy was a “little shaky,” he said, before adding, “You have to realize what he walked into.” If the election comes down to a choice between Biden and Trump?
Biden “all the way,” he said.
‘Who gets credit for a dumb idea?’
DALTON, Ga. – One of Biden’s legislative triumphs can be seen through the trees 80 miles north of Atlanta along Interstate 75, a gray, low-slung roof factory of Qcells North America.
The South Korean-owned plant expanded after the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, adding 510 jobs to the growing solar industry. The panels its workers make in a 12-hour shift can produce as much solar power annually as the Hoover Dam’s peak output.
But few at the Oakwood Cafe in nearby Dalton have noticed in this conservative corner of the state, represented by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R). Dalton Mayor David Pennington (R) dismissed the government support of solar panels as the pet project of politicians, embraced both by Vice President Kamala Harris, who visited the plant in April, and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R).
“Who gets credit for a dumb idea?” Pennington said, laughing. “When both sides are agreeing on something, it probably proves it is a stupid idea.”
Pennington says residents most often ask him what he’s doing to help address the falling test scores of the city’s students. Families tell him that their grocery bills have gone up in the last three years. Pennington said that the night before, after a governmental meeting, he and his wife went to Krystal, a regional fast food joint, and ordered burgers, fries and drinks for $23, a meal he remembers costing $12 five years ago.
At a nearby table, Eric Azua, a local Realtor and registered Republican, made the same point: He has benefited himself from the Qcells expansion. He said he has sold homes to workers who are able to afford more given higher wages, offering Azua better commissions. But he credits local officials for the new jobs, rather than the Biden administration. Like many others in the area, Azua plans to vote for Trump.
“He needs to be replaced,” he said of Biden.
In 2018, Trump’s steep tariffs on solar panels from China prompted Qcells to build the facility in Dalton. Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act—including a provision by Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.)—provided tax credits for every stage of the solar manufacturing supply chain, incentivizing Qcells to expand.
Such expansions of U.S. manufacturing have been happening around the country in recent years, spurred by federal incentives supported by Biden. Monthly manufacturing construction spending rose from $77 million to $207 million between January 2021 and October 2023, a jump of 170 percent, according to census data. It’s progress that Biden has highlighted in his television ads this fall, talking about new manufacturing jobs, new green energy to lower power costs.
“For Joe Biden, it’s about restoring the sense of security working people deserve,” says one Biden spot that has run in Georgia.
The industrial park near the highway that cuts through Dalton has boomed since Qcells first opened there. Beside the first Qcells facility at the site, a second sleek, brightly lit warehouse has popped up, where workers are assembling commercial and residential solar panels with the help of automated machines.
“There are not other jobs similar in the area,” said Lisa Nash, general manager of the Qcells factory. “We can take high school students, people who have made other products, and if they have an aptitude, we can train them. And it’s upskilling.”
Other jobs have come downstream. Mary Sumner, who voted for Biden in 2020, recently started working for the local janitorial company that contracts with Qcells as an extra source of income aside from her job managing an apartment complex. She knows she is part of a minority in her family of 10 and hometown that would give any credit to Biden for anything positive, including the new source of money she receives.
“Four more years and there’s even better things to come,” Sumner said.
Jan Pourquoi, a Democrat and owner of a small Dalton carpet company, attended Harris’s visit to the site. When he looked around the room, he didn’t see anyone who lived in Dalton.
His neighbors and friends tell him they are worse off financially than they were under Trump and they believe Republicans are doing more to address immigration and drugs—or at least they seem to talk about it more. In the last local election, 9 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. In 2024, Pourquoi expects there won’t be any surge of voters supporting Biden, especially for the solar initiatives.
“There are more people aware of Qcells outside this area than in this area,” he said. “What it definitely will not do is change anything on the political dial.”
‘Everything has gone up in price’
PHOENIX – Martha Isela Rodriguez remembers when she would go just once a week to buy her groceries at the Fry’s right around the corner from her house.
Now, she checks her mail daily to see the weekly ads with specials and coupons for grocery stores. El Rancho Market has deals on fruits and vegetables on Wednesdays and meat on Thursdays. On the weekend, Food City tends to have some good specials, too.
For Rodriguez, it has become the norm to visit three grocery stores a week – and even then, she’s still paying more than before.
Standing in the kitchen heating tortillas on a comal, a cast-iron skillet, Rodriguez recalled how she used to pay much less for groceries when Trump was president. Everything, from the chuletas de cerdo to the jalapeños she uses for her salsa, was cheaper. And that $380 electricity bill she just paid? It had never been so high, she remarked.
For her, all these higher costs spell trouble for Biden, who she voted for and knocked on doors to get elected in 2020. Her home county of Maricopa went for Trump in 2016 by under three percentage points and then backed Biden in 2020 by just over two percentage points. But she’s skeptical that Biden will win Arizona – or the 2024 election.
“Personally, I see it difficult for Biden to win. There’s already so many people who feel he hasn’t done anything, that the economy isn’t working,” Rodriguez, 48, said as she passed her 1-year-old granddaughter, Maria Daniela, an apple, mango and spinach baby food puree as a snack.
She was hearing it from her co-workers whom she had convinced to vote for Biden in 2020. Now, they either say they won’t vote this year or they’re considering backing Trump. They taunt her for pushing them to support Biden in 2020 – complaining to her about how bad inflation was under Biden and how he was letting in too many migrants and helping them when he wasn’t helping the undocumented immigrants already living here.
“They tell me things like, ‘Look at the gas. It hasn’t gone down at all since your Biden came into power.’ Your Biden, they tell me,” she said. “They say the same with a box of eggs or a gallon of milk. ‘Now that your Biden is around, the prices are up and the salaries don’t match it.'”
“And what can I say? Yes, it’s true,” she added. “Everything has gone up in price.”
Due to inflation, it cost an Arizona family over $2,700 a year more to purchase the same goods and services in August 2023 as it would have cost in August 2022, according to an analysis in September by the nonpartisan Common Sense Institute.
The sharpest increases came in distinct sectors, including gas prices, which rocketed higher in early 2022 after Russia invaded Ukraine, and have since fallen back to 2021 levels. The pain of those increases was felt especially in suburban and rural areas, where people like Rodriguez drive long distances on a daily basis.
Rodriguez said she knew it wasn’t necessarily Biden’s fault that inflation remained an issue in Phoenix, as she’d heard of it being a challenge globally. But she said she wished he would project more confidence and stability like Obama, the politician whom she said she became a U.S. citizen just to vote for. In her eyes, she said, Obama was handed a terrible economy after George W. Bush’s administration and was able to turn it around.
“Biden just doesn’t have that magic, that energy to get things done,” she said.
In a matchup between Biden and Trump, Rodriguez said she’ll vote for Biden again. It won’t be because he’s done a good job, she said, but because of just how strongly she dislikes Trump.
She added, however, that she doesn’t plan to repeat her election-year summer of knocking on doors in the Phoenix heat to get other Latinos out to vote for Biden this time.