Daily Local News (West Chester, PA)

State of the Union: Biden sees economic glow, GOP sees gloom

- By Josh Boak

Going into Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Joe Biden sees a nation with its future aglow.

Republican­s take a far bleaker view — that the country is beset by crushing debt and that Biden is largely responsibl­e for inflation. And the GOP now holds a House majority intent on blocking the president.

The harder reality is that the United States is on a tight rope, trying to balance efforts to reduce inflation with the need to stay upright and avoid falling into a recession. That’s with the seemingly inherent contradict­ion of the Federal Reserve’s interest rate increases and the unemployme­nt rate falling to a near 54-year low.

Based on past speeches, Biden believes the policies adopted under his watch can fill the U.S. with new factories and protect against climate change. Roads, bridges, sewer systems, ports and internet service would be improved. The middle class would be more financiall­y secure. So would America’s place in the global economy’s hierarchy.

On Friday, the president said the proof was in the January employment report. It showed 517,000 jobs were added as the unemployme­nt rate fell to 3.4%, making it “crystal clear” that his “chorus of critics” were wrong.

“Here’s where we stand: The strongest job growth in history,” Biden said. “Put simply, I would argue the Biden economic plan is working.”

Republican­s are pushing back. They blamed Biden’s trillion-dollar plus spending for high inflation and surging gas and food prices. GOP lawmakers want to repeal his tax increases and additional money for the IRS. They oppose his forgivenes­s of student debt and blame him for the migrants seeking to enter the country at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Neither side captures the fullness of the actual state of the economy.

One group of experts can read the data and claim a recession is on the horizon. A different group can focus on a separate set of figures and see reason to rejoice. It’s a disorienti­ng moment.

Biden can celebrate the low jobless rate even as Republican­s bemoan inflation that is still running dangerousl­y hot.

“It’s the best of times and the worst of times for the U.S. economy, to borrow a phrase,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “The economy is full of contradict­ions as it struggles to get beyond the massive global shocks of the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

Zandi said he expects the U.S. economy will “skirt” a recession this year, though many economists believe a downturn will come.

Gus Faucher, PNC Financial Services’ chief economist, pegs the odds of a recession this year at 60%. But he said any downturn would be “mild” because “worker shortages will limit layoffs, consumer balance sheets are in great shape, the banking system is solid.”

Most people in the U.S. assume the nation is already in a recession, even if they personally feel fine.

Only 24% of adults call the national economy good and 76% say conditions are poor, according to a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. At the same time, 57% say their personal financial situation is good. That’s unchanged since December, but it has eroded slightly since earlier last year when 62% felt positively about their finances.

The key force shaping the economy right now is the Fed, which has the mission of keeping prices stable and inflation at around 2%. Consumer prices jumped 6.5% last year.

To bring down inflation, the Fed has tried to slow down hiring and growth by raising its benchmark rate over the past year. When Biden delivered the State of the Union Address in 2022, the Fed’s benchmark rate was effectivel­y near-zero. It’s now over 4.5%, the fastest increase in four decades, and Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said Wednesday that the rate will likely go higher.

“Without price stability, the economy does not work for anyone,” Powell told reporters after the Fed board’s most recent meeting.

The Fed rate increases mark a major reversal in how the economy operates.

Ever since the 2008 financial crisis, the U.S. central bank had held its benchmark rate near historic lows to bring back growth. That made it easier for tech startups because cheap money meant investors expected them to focus on growth instead of profits. Consumers got use to historical­ly cheap rates for mortgages and auto loans.

The past year’s rate jumps produced a sudden whiplash. The stock market fell. Prominent tech companies such as Google and Microsoft recently announced layoffs. Even as computer chip companies began building new plants and crediting Biden’s policies, the world economy swung from a dearth of semiconduc­tors to a glut. Mortgage rates initially doubled to over 7%, before falling back a bit to 6% last week. The big increase meant monthly payments became unaffordab­le for would-be homebuyers, forcing many to stay in rentals.

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