It was buried a bit in the autopsies of Tuesday night's presidential debate, what with the sitting president refusing to denounce white supremacists and repeatedly undermining the legitimacy of the coming election. But there was a telling bloc of discussion dedicated to economic issues, specifically the nation's recovery from the pandemic-fueled downturn. It was probably too much to ask for this discussion to be predicated on the basic fact that many of our problems in this arena are rooted in our failure—and really, the national government's decision to stop trying—to contain the virus. But moderator Chris Wallace could also have done more to make reality less negotiable.
In the exchange, Wallace suggested that while the president insists we're seeing a "V-shaped recovery" from the economic meltdown, Joe Biden calls it "K-shaped." In the former, we'd be seeing a strong recovery across the board. The latter refers to the notion the recovery is actually being experienced differently by different people—the rich have recovered swiftly and comprehensively; those less well off are still struggling, or even experiencing continuing decline. Wallace presented this as an open question, one that's a matter of opinion or political ideology. But it is knowable. The Washington Post made that clear on Thursday.
Related: A timeline of President Trump's comments on the coronavirus
The economic collapse sparked by the pandemic is triggering the most unequal recession in modern U.S. history, delivering a mild setback for those at or near the top and a depression-like blow for those at the bottom...
Recessions often hit poorer households harder, but this one is doing so at a scale that is the worst in generations, the analysis shows. While the nation overall has regained nearly half of the lost jobs, several key demographic groups have recovered more slowly, including mothers of school-age children, Black men, Black women, Hispanic men, Asian Americans, younger Americans (ages 25 to 34) and people without college degrees.
The graphics in the Post piece make the situation abundantly clear: More well-off groups have largely recovered and were less likely to lose their jobs and income in the first place. The stock market is booming, but only a little more than half of Americans own any equities and, according to CNN, the wealthiest 10 percent of households own 87 percent of stocks and mutual funds. Meanwhile, poorer Americans—more likely to work jobs you can't do from home, in industries disrupted by the virus or the lockdowns—are seeing none of those market gains. We were already living in two Americas, but now we're experiencing two economies and two recessions. That's on top of two pandemics, where these same groups are also more likely to contract the virus and die from it.
The president has proven incapable of—or unwilling to—grasp this reality. In an ABC News town hall this month, he declared that "stocks are owned by everybody," adding: "Look, we're having a tremendous thing in the stock market, and that's good for everybody, but people that aren't rich own stock and they have 401(k)s." Maybe he feels like he has no choice but to trumpet the strength of the economy he's overseen. Maybe it's that he's incapable of admitting weakness in anything he's associated with. But the gap between his message and many people's actual day-to-day lives may cost him dearly. He ought to know this based on how things shook out in 2016.
Of the many factors in why Hillary Clinton lost that election—misogyny, racism, James Comey, Russian meddling, propaganda, ignoring Wisconsin and Michigan, decades of attacks during her time in public life that left the electorate primed to doubt her integrity—one is that the Democratic campaign misjudged the economic state of the country. While on the surface the Obama administration had overseen a dramatic rebound in employment and GDP growth since the Great Recession in 2009, and the growth of inequality began to slow down in Obama's second term, the recovery was not evenly shared.
That was true based on income and wealth level, as richer Americans experienced a full recovery while poorer Americans did not, and it reflected structural inequalities on racial lines. It was also true of geography. Smaller cities in, say, the industrial Midwest never really recovered from the economic cataclysm of 2009, which rounded off decades of decline in manufacturing and beyond. Clinton highlighted inequality as an issue, and suggested she'd make the super-wealthy start paying their fair share, but the Democratic nominee failed to channel the energy of a key slice of the electorate in what was another Change Election. Maybe it was an impossible task for a candidate who was, essentially, running as an extension of the Obama years.
Meanwhile, Trump lied fragrantly about the state of the Obama economy—and continues to this day. But for some, the message likely resonated. The Republican candidate may have been trying to attack the Obama record as a whole, but the rhetoric might have landed most with people who felt the top-line numbers—which showed an economy that had returned to good health—did not represent their experiences. The core of Trump's appeal was to his base supporters' fear and resentment of a changing world, the threat crystalized by changing demographics and the ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency. These are many of the circa 40 percent of people who, the polling suggests, support him unconditionally. But he likely could not have won without roping in some voters along the margins, who, faced with a choice between a steady and professional hand who says things are largely on track, and a chaos vector pledging to shake things up, went for the latter. Others, unconvinced that Clinton grasped their situation and would do anything to meaningfully change it, may have just stayed home.
This time around, Trump will, despite his best efforts, own the current economy, where the emerging American underclass may be left even further behind than they were in the 2009 downturn. He has clearly demonstrated he has no plan to create good jobs that pay a living wage for the millions of people who are un- or underemployed. While the left doubts his commitment, Joe Biden has pledged to spend $2 trillion on clean energy and infrastructure with a plan that touts union jobs that pay $15 an hour. He is also, conveniently for him, not the president currently presiding over an epidemiological and economic disaster. He's also not a degenerate narcissist who is set to reject the outcome of a democratic election. So there's that, too.
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