In Michigan’s Macomb County, uncertainty over ‘Bidenomics’

In Michigan’s Macomb County, uncertainty over ‘Bidenomics’

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Right now, the outlook is not good for Mr. Biden.

“Nationwide, and in Michigan as well, there is a divergence between … how people view their own economic standing versus how they feel about the economy as a whole,” says Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “People have the impression that the economy is way worse than it is.”  

Full stores, but weak confidence

A drive around Macomb County reveals an economy that’s far from moribund. Parking lots are full. Empty storefronts are few and far between.

“They’re building everywhere,” says Melinda Stromile, a server at Olive Garden in Warren, Michigan. “Every time I see a building go up, I pray that it will be a Five Below” – a discount chain offering “cool stuff” for $1 to $5.

But inside those stores, the president’s economic plan – which he has dubbed “Bidenomics” – isn’t generating much confidence. “I know about as much about Bidenomics as Joe Biden does,” says one small-business owner in Sterling Heights who declined to give his name.

The term Bidenomics has come to refer to the president’s goal of strengthening the economy from the bottom up, through policies that aid working-class Americans – and through federal investment in infrastructure and green energy. To critics, Bidenomics is associated with rising federal debt and pandemic-era spending that helped fuel inflation. 

During Mr. Biden’s presidency, job growth has surprised many forecasters with its strength. Unemployment – currently at 3.9% – has remained low, while so far the economy has dodged a feared recession despite a series of Federal Reserve interest rate hikes.  

The big problem has been inflation, which peaked at 8.8% last year. Higher prices have hit everyone, rich and poor, conservative and liberal. Surveying more than 5,000 adults this summer, an American Communities Project/Ipsos poll found that rising costs were the top concern of every type of community and the only issue that united Americans.


Bureau of Labor Statistics

Although the inflation rate has fallen by more than half since last year’s peak – and was unchanged in October, according to a Labor Department report Tuesday – polls show Mr. Biden continues to lose support among key constituencies that backed him in 2020.

For example: Voters under 35 years old, who supported Mr. Biden by a 21% margin over Mr. Trump in 2020, now support Mr. Trump 48% to 47%, according to a CNN poll released last week. Mr. Biden has also seen his margins shrink among Black and Hispanic voters.

There could be many reasons for this that have nothing to do with the economy. Mr. Biden’s advanced age concerns some voters, while the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East may have soured the public’s mood.

A surge in housing costs

But the pocketbook factor also looms large: Since Mr. Biden took office, jumps in consumer prices have outpaced the gains in average hourly earnings across the United States. 

Another economic factor that stands out is housing costs. 

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Rent inflation peaked in March at 8.8% and remains at levels not seen in 40 years, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. That inflation hits disproportionately hard all three groups whose support for Mr. Biden has waned. Black, Hispanic, and young people are much more likely to rent than older, non-Hispanic white people.

The outlook is even worse for renters who hope to buy their first home. High inflation has pushed up home prices while high interest rates have made mortgages more expensive. Typical first-time buyers have to devote 40% of their income to mortgage payments to afford the typical starter home, the National Association of Realtors reported last week. That means that homeownership is more out of reach today than at any time since the association began tracking affordability in 1989.

That challenge is a key issue in Michigan. In May, it expanded statewide its $10,000 subsidy to help qualified, first-time homebuyers afford their down payment. “The American Dream appears to be on sabbatical,” the head of Macomb County’s Habitat for Humanity wrote in a local op-ed earlier this year.

Even leasing or buying a new car is a challenge for many, says Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel. And job creation, while strong, has slowed.

“It’s a bit of a struggle” to find good employment, says Aram Rassan, a receptionist at the Super 8 motel in Sterling Heights who is also working two other jobs while he attends school on the side to become a data analyst. “The economy in 2018 under Trump, pre-COVID, was better.”

Dueling versions of populism

Macomb County sprang to national attention in the 1980 presidential election, when a large portion of its blue-collar Democrats broke with their party to vote for Ronald Reagan. Ever since, Macomb has swung back and forth, mostly following the nation’s choice for president – except for in 2000, when it backed Democratic Vice President Al Gore, and in 2020, when it went for the GOP’s Mr. Trump. While the county is still more white and less Hispanic than the U.S. as a whole and has a smaller share of college graduates, much has changed.

It’s trending Republican, at least in presidential elections. And it’s far more diverse than in 1980. Now, 1 in 9 of its residents is foreign-born, nearly twice the national average, many of them Arab American. The Israel-Hamas war complicates Mr. Biden’s appeal here. Another complication: competing brands of populism.

The president’s appeal to working-class voters is perhaps best symbolized by his staunch support for organized labor, and this county has a heavy concentration of union workers.

“The union message is so much stronger in this part of our state because there are so many union jobs,” says Alysa Diebolt, the Democratic county chair. “It’s not just auto union members in Macomb County. It’s electricians. It’s carpenters. … I would be hard-pressed to find a single person, I think, who doesn’t have someone in their close family that has been positively impacted by a union.”

Recently, the United Auto Workers scored an impressive victory, securing a 25% raise and other improvements in tentative four-year contracts with the Detroit automakers, which should buoy Macomb’s economy. The new union leadership has adopted an aggressively populist tone – in a strike update video to members last month, UAW President Shawn Fain wore a T-shirt that read: “Eat the Rich.” 

President Biden is trying to ride the wave of this economic populism. In an unprecedented step for a sitting president, he joined UAW picketers in Michigan in late September. A day later, former President Trump came to a nonunion plant in Macomb County, telling workers a UAW contract wouldn’t matter because federal electric vehicle mandates would put them out of a job in two years.

These two strains of populism – “government is your enemy” from Mr. Trump; “corporations and rich people are your enemy” from the UAW – are competing for the blue-collar hearts and minds of Macomb County. 

“Reagan Democrats liked [President] Reagan because they perceived him as standing up for the little guy,” says David Dulio, a political scientist at nearby Oakland University. Forty years later, Mr. Trump is making the same appeal to peel off union support from Democrats. Mr. Biden is trying to change the narrative and rebuild union and nonunion blue-collar support for his party.

Who wins in Macomb may depend on who turns out the most voters next fall, Professor Dulio says. Then again, “a year is an eternity in politics,” he adds, and much can change.


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