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The truth and the spin of Biden’s economic recovery

Regardless of responsibility, presidents get blamed for the bad stuff and praised for the good.

The Biden presidency inherited a succession of unprecedented crises. These crises affected the entire world and produced much worse economic outcomes in peer countries: We had a once-in-a-century pandemic that killed millions of people and shut down entire industries. As president, you get credit for things when things are good, and you get blamed when things are bad, even when they are out of your control.

It is worth taking a look at what, exactly, Americans have been hearing about the economy over the past three years

We saw this in 2019 when Donald Trump had done nothing to help the American economy. In fact, he tried his best to hurt it, with massive tax cuts for the wealthy and a ridiculous trade war. But he still presided over an economy that was finally recovering after a financial crisis, and he got the credit.

We also saw it in 2020, to a certain extent, when Covid annihilated the U.S. economy — and Trump lost. Once Biden took over — basically from the very moment he was sworn in — we were inundated with negative messaging about the economy. Some of it was rooted in real crises that the administration had to tackle. Some of it was overhyped.

Now, this collective freakout about the economy happened across the media ecosystem, but it was most pronounced on Fox News. So it is worth taking a look at what, exactly, Americans have been hearing about the economy over the past three years, and compare that with actual circumstances and how the Biden White House has responded. 

Let’s start with the labor issue: Biden took office amid an unprecedented global pandemic. Remember, there was not even a widely available vaccine when he was sworn in. As a result, the Biden administration continued the economic stimulus from the Trump pandemic response, including additional direct cash payments and an additional $300 a week in unemployment benefits.

Fox News’ response to labor shortages amid a deadly global pandemic was endless coverage about how, suddenly, no one wanted to work anymore. 

To be fair, some businesses did have trouble finding workers. It was a real challenge for the White House, especially when the Delta variant hit that summer and more than a 100,000 people were still being hospitalized every week. But then what happened? Well, the Biden administration continued its vaccination campaign and the virus subsided to a level where people were comfortable going to work in person. Equally as importantly, his bold agenda of economic stimulus worked. Unemployment dropped massively, from 6.3 percent when Biden took office to 3.7 percent in the last jobs report. People definitely want to work.

Unemployment dropped massively, from 6.3 percent when Biden took office to 3.7 percent in the last jobs report.

Once the jobs numbers improved, Fox News mostly moved off the “nobody wants to work anymore” narrative. There was a new boogeyman in town: the supply chain. These issues were also very real, especially in the aftermath of Covid. But Fox took the opportunity, starting all the way back in October 2021, to spin the yarn that Biden was responsible for the supply chain issues and, apparently, doing it to ruin Christmas for America’s children

But months before Fox started its latest war on Christmas, Biden had put together a task force to combat supply chain issues. By the fall, he announced that the Port of Los Angeles would be working 24/7 to clear the backlog, as well as that additional investments from USPS and FedEx would make sure packages got moving. By November, the heads of a bunch of major retail companies were shouting from the rooftops that no supply chain issue was affecting holiday shopping. In fact, holiday spending in 2021 grew nearly 15 percent from the year before, shattering all kinds of records. Crisis averted: The presents were under the tree.

It wasn’t just Christmas presents, either. Early last year, Biden administration was also dealing with a very real and very scary shortage of baby formula. They put together another plan to increase supply and fix allocation issues, which were caused by a shuttered factory and a product recall. The White House later declared that production had actually increased year-over-year under its watch. By October, shelf stock rates were back where they had been before the crisis started.

At this point, Biden had been president for two years, and the midterm elections were approaching. Republicans did not have much to run on, especially after the Dobbs decision struck down abortion rights. Their best hope was to run on the economy, specifically inflation, which had been spiking because of the hot labor market and lingering disruptions from the pandemic.

Fox News did its level best to act as the messaging arm of the Republican Party, spending day after day after day talking about “eggflation.” The price of eggs is an interesting case, in that it really wasn’t about inflation at all. In early 2022, an avian flu outbreak killed tens of millions of egg-laying chickens. Yet another example of a supply crunch out of the president’s control. And guess what? The ship corrected course. Farmers raised new chickens, egg prices came right back down. Your omelet was no longer in danger.

Fox saved the big guns for “the pain at the pump.” Amid a major land war in Europe and a mass blockade of Russian oil, gas was averaging more than $5 a gallon. Now, for better or for worse (in my opinion, for worse), domestic oil production is booming under Biden. We’re producing more oil than Saudi Arabia and Russia. Gas prices are down from their peak last year, with the national average hovering at about $3.22 a gallon, the lowest in nearly a year following a steady decline.

The story of the Biden presidency so far has been this series of metaphorical meteors hitting the Earth, unexpected and in many cases unprecedented.

These days, you don’t really hear Fox News talking too much about the price of gas. Or eggs. Or baby formula. Or Christmas presents.

So the story of the Biden presidency so far has been this series of metaphorical meteors hitting the Earth, unexpected and in many cases unprecedented crises that the White House had to attend to. Each one has caused huge cycles of enormous, around-the-clock panic across the media.

In every case, the Biden administration attempted to do something about the problem. In many cases, they saw real, tangible success. They quietly did their job, then moved on to the next crisis.

That is not the message getting through on Fox News. No, the message on Fox is that the entire economy is going to collapse any minute now, and a recession is imminent.

Except that according to a recent survey of business economists, the overwhelming majority of them — more than 75 percent! — do not believe a recession is likely. The fundamentals of the economy are much sounder than you might think: GDP is booming, and more importantly, real wages are rising. This means wages are rising faster than inflation, allowing working people more purchasing power. In fact, the largest wage gains have happened in the bottom 40% of workers. The recession that Fox News promised is now far from certain.

We are left in this weird environment where people genuinely feel very bad about the economy. And the weird thing about the way that credit and blame works in the public consciousness: Presidents get blamed for the bad stuff and praised for the good. Even though the Fed, say, has more to do with cooling inflation that the White House does.

But Biden is not getting the praise he deserves. If you are evaluating presidential performance, you have to keep the rules consistent.  Donald Trump and his buddies on Fox News want to praise him for the great economy from 2017 through 2019, while ignoring the 2020 disaster that unfolded under his watch. They want you to believe Trump’s term only lasted three years, then he just disappeared before Biden took over, when a bunch of bad stuff happened under his watch.

The record, however, shows that Trump oversaw the biggest job loss in American history, along with mass death and abject disaster. You might argue that was not all Trump’s fault — true enough. But then inflation and the supply chain and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and spiking gas prices and shipping backlogs are not Biden’s fault, either. 

Biden got to work putting together an economic vision totally opposite to Trump's. As Biden likes to say, an economy from the middle up and from the bottom up. It’s produced tangible benefits, and it has been the best economic performance of a president, under very difficult conditions, that this nation has seen since FDR.

This is an adapted excerpt from the December 7 episode of “All In with Chris Hayes.”