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Editor’s Note: Stock market no panacea for Biden, Democrats

The upswing in the Dow doesn't pull up the president's approval rating

President Joe Biden speaks at Gateway Technical College’s iMet Center on May 8 in Sturtevant, Wis.
President Joe Biden speaks at Gateway Technical College’s iMet Center on May 8 in Sturtevant, Wis. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Less than four years from the day a lame-duck President Donald Trump called a news conference to tout the Dow Jones Industrial Average hitting 30,000, there was President Joe Biden on Thursday heralding the arrival of Dow 40,000.

The index dipped back below that milestone as of this writing, but it’s still a remarkable gain — so far, since what goes up can always go down. Regardless, the implication was that Biden’s economic agenda is working despite stubborn inflation and high interest rates, and despite GOP attacks that his regulatory and tax policies would have the opposite effect.

But the president’s arguments aren’t breaking through to voters. Biden’s approval rating has been hovering in the high-30 percent range; the last two incumbents with approval ratings in the 30s at this point in their presidencies were George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, neither of whom won a second term. That’s bad news for Democrats on Capitol Hill as well, with polls showing unexpected vulnerability in states like Nevada.

A GOP sweep is no sure thing given Trump’s own unpopularity, out-of-mainstream GOP abortion views and voters’ predilection for divided government in recent decades.

Since President Richard M. Nixon’s 1968 victory, voters have chosen unified government — one-party control of the White House and both chambers — less than one-third of the time. Most polls and political forecasters consider everything a toss-up at this point — House, Senate and Oval Office — though the top of the ticket is likely to have some degree of buoying effect down ballot.

Market gains spread unequally

Crowing about Dow 40,000 probably isn’t going to do the trick for Biden.

It’s true that more Americans own stock than ever before — 58 percent in 2022, according to the Federal Reserve. But among Black and Hispanic households — where Biden needs to shore up support — both the number of households owning stock and the value of their holdings were well below the national average.

And 87 percent of equity and mutual fund shares at the end of last year belonged to the top 10 percent of U.S. households by net worth, according to Fed data. The bottom 50 percent, meanwhile, held just 1 percent of those assets. After spending three-plus years bashing greedy corporations, taking credit for fat corporate profits accruing mostly to the well-off may not be the best look for the Rust Belt voters Biden needs.

Stocks aren’t the only measure of household assets. Fixed-income instruments like corporate bonds and Treasurys, which have mostly gone nowhere but up for decades, have taken a hit as inflation ate away at returns.

The value of holdings in the Bloomberg Aggregate Bond Index, which tracks a basket of investment-grade U.S. bonds, has dropped by nearly 5 percent since Biden took office. While a typical “balanced” investment portfolio — 60 percent stocks, 40 percent bonds — is still up big during that stretch, more conservative investors, including retirees and those close to it, aren’t faring as well.

Interest rates’ bite

Then there’s real estate. While property owners are sitting on hefty price gains, many are “trapped” in homes with lower mortgage rates locked in years ago compared to the 7 percent-plus 30-year fixed rates of today. The value of large-bank mortgage originations dropped by nearly 75 percent from the start of 2021 to the end of last year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

Home equity lines of credit swelled as consumers kept spending despite big price increases — but those bills are coming due now at higher interest rates, eating up dollars that households would have liked to save, or spend on other things. Residential construction and renovations — accounting for about 4 percent of gross domestic product, according to the National Association of Home Builders — have declined as inflation and rates have risen.

As for the one-third of U.S. households that don’t own their homes, rents have generally outpaced wage growth during Biden’s presidency. Same with groceries. Gasoline costs are up over 50 percent, though much of that has occurred since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

The picture gets better after accounting for taxes and government benefits: Americans’ per capita disposable incomes, adjusted for inflation, are up around 5 percent since Biden took office, not counting stock gains. But a Congressional Budget Office study found that while all income groups are better off since 2019, the richest have benefited the most and the middle class the least.

Despite such headwinds, overall the economy has held up pretty well — better than Biden’s approval ratings would suggest.

Real economic growth over the past year has been averaging a robust 3 percent for the past few quarters, the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers points out. Stripping the numbers down to just consumer spending and private business investment, backing out more volatile factors, growth has also been strong.

The latest consumer price index report showed the smallest annual gain in “core” prices — minus volatile food and energy costs — since April 2021. Investors as of Friday were betting that the Fed would start cutting interest rates at its September policy meeting, according to the CME Group’s FedWatch tool, which could give Biden a lift before voters go to the polls.

Lawmakers on the sidelines?

For now, Congress is little more than a bystander. That’s not to say it hasn’t been a productive stretch of legislating, despite the outward appearance of dysfunction. Major bipartisan deals have been cut on annual appropriations, funding for the Ukraine war and reauthorizing the warrantless surveillance of foreigners deemed potential security threats, with some new nods to privacy concerns.

Biden just signed an aviation bill which will pump some modest new investments into airport infrastructure and add five new round-trip flights out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. It would require airlines to grant refunds for lengthy delays and cancellations and bar added costs for families that want to sit together on crowded flights — part of Biden’s war on “junk fees.”

But a new multiyear farm bill seems like an uphill climb this year, and federal agencies are almost certainly headed for another continuing resolution until after the elections, which will keep a lid on spending.

Next year things don’t get easier: Major fights over the debt ceiling and the expiring 2017 tax cuts are on tap. But this Congress has shown that divided government can get things done.

And despite Biden’s misfortunes, vulnerable swing-state incumbents are outpolling the president, showing that ticket-splitting voters — weary of Biden but wanting a check on Trump — may yet give divided government a chance.

Peter Cohn is CQ Roll Call’s fiscal policy editor.

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