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State of the Union: Biden faces skeptical Americans as he prepares to tout his economic record

Recent polls find that just 37% of American approve of the president's handling of the economy.

President Joe Biden heads into Tuesday’s State of the Union address facing two seemingly contradictory political realities.

On the one hand, the president has economic numbers to gloat about, including the lowest unemployment rate since 1969, inflation that is easing, and an economy that ended 2022 with solid growth. But poll after poll shows Americans aren’t giving Biden credit for the good numbers.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken last week found that just 37% of adults approve of his handling of the economy with 41% of Americans saying their personal finances have gotten worse since he took office. Another survey released this weekend from CBS finds similar numbers with 61% of Americans rating the current condition of the national economy as fairly bad or very bad. A third poll from Fox News released last week showed Biden’s approval rating on the economy was at 37%, well below his overall approval rating of 45%.

The dour economic numbers are likely a result of Americans’ ongoing focus on inflation with Biden’s overall economic number mirroring his approval rating on that issue. Americans also appear fearful that a recession could be around the corner — no matter what the positive economic numbers this month show.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to reporters after disembarking from Air Force One en route to Camp David at Hagerstown Regional Airport, Hagerstown, Maryland, U.S., February 4, 2023. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz
President Joe Biden speaks to reporters in Hagerstown, Maryland on Saturday (REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz)

Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH) offered an explanation for the discrepancy during an ABC appearance this weekend: “Go into a grocery store and just talk to people in the cereal aisle. What are they feeling? Do they feel confident about this leadership?” arguing that the overwhelming answer is no.

Sununu also predicted that if Biden takes credit for the strong numbers on Tuesday night, it will end up ringing hollow. The New Hampshire governor says job growth was to be expected following a pandemic and that inflation was also due to come down, saying “of course it’s coming down, it couldn't have gotten any higher."

What it means for Biden’s speech

For the White House's part, top Biden economic advisor Brian Deese promised Monday afternoon that the president would be focused on this disconnect in his speech and "meet the American people where they are."

"The economic anxiety is real," even as life for many Americans has improved, Deese said.

It's likely the president's speech will heavily focus on his economic record and what could be a laundry list of recent economic policy wins. Those include the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the CHIPS and Science Act which, Biden is likely to note, were enacted on a bipartisan basis.

Administration aides have repeatedly emphasized that Tuesday presents a rare opportunity for Biden to command a large viewing audience and speak directly to Americans, but few think the president has an easy task ahead of him.

"People are kind of unhappy, and people don't like to be told that they should feel better than they do," says David Wessel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He added that Biden has a difficult balancing act to pull off during remarks at a virtual Brookings event previewing the speech on Monday afternoon.

The president is also likely to spend considerable time Tuesday on issues that could impact Americans' personal financial situation, such as the administration's announcement last week to limit credit card fees as well as more calls for efforts like expanded child care and paid family leave that were left on the cutting room floor during his first two years in office.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris applaud, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, U.S., March 1. 2022. Jabin Botsford/Pool via REUTERS
In 2022, Biden spoke in front of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris. On Tuesday, Pelosi's seat will be filled by Kevin McCarthy. (Jabin Botsford/Pool via REUTERS)

Tuesday's annual Washington ritual could also set the stage for a re-election campaign next year, with some observers expecting a formal announcement of a 2024 Biden campaign coming within months.

A poll from last summer from First Focus on Children, a progressive group, argued that bringing issues like childcare up could be a winning campaign message for 2024 — even if that effort isn't likely to go anywhere in a GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

While Biden faces strong public skepticism toward a possible second run, the pessimism around the economy could end up working to his advantage. In this weekend's poll, CBS asked Americans where they expect the economy to be next year and almost 2 of 3 respondents said they expect things to be slowing or in a recession.

But if policymakers in Washington can execute a soft landing for the economy, that could surprise voters in a good way for the commander-in-chief.

On Monday, economists at Goldman Sachs lowered their chances of a recession to 25% and Biden loves to point out how people often underestimate him.

“For the past two years, we’ve heard a chorus of critics write off my economic plan,” Biden said last week after the January jobs report blew past expectations. “These critics and cynics are wrong.”

This post has been updated with additional context.

Ben Werschkul is Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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