On Tuesday, President Joe Biden will deliver his second State of the Union address, making the case that the economy has done well under his leadership. That will be a hard sell to most Americans because, as the latest I&I/TIPP Poll shows, a solid majority say they are worse off financially than they were two years ago.
The online I&I/TIPP Poll asked 1,358 Americans a simple question: “Are you better off today than you were two years ago, or not?” Possible responses were “Yes, better off,” “No, not better off,” and “Not sure.” The poll, which was taken from Feb. 1-3, has a margin of error of +/-2.8 percentage points.
By 61% to 33%, Americans overwhelmingly picked “No, not better off” over “Yes, better off.” Just 6% said they weren’t sure.
Not surprisingly, Republicans overwhelmingly say they are not better off (76% “not better off” vs. 21% “better off”). But so does a super majority of independents (71% to 20%). Even among Democrats, few are celebrating. The poll found that less than half (49%) said they are better off, while 45% say they are not better off.
Each month, the I&I/TIPP poll asks people to describe themselves as either conservative, moderate or liberal in their political views. Unlike party affiliation, the views are unexpectedly similar across the ideological belief spectrum: Self-described conservatives (64% worse off, 32% better off), moderates (60% vs. 31%) and liberals (57% vs. 36%) are not, in fact, far apart in their responses.
Other interesting results warrant mention. For instance, minorities mostly feel better about their financial position than white Americans.
African-American respondents, for instance, were nearly even in their responses, with 47% saying they are worse off compared with 42% who are better off. Not quite within the margin of error, but close.
Meanwhile, half of Hispanics (50%) who answered the I&I/TIPP survey said they were “better off,” compared to 42% who said they were “not better off.”
The greatest concentration of pessimism was found among the white demographic. Within that large group, 69% said they were “not better off” vs. 26% who said they were “better off.”
Men and women were another divide. While 41% of men said they were “better off,” just 25% of women did. Conversely, 53% of men reported being not better off, compared to 68% of women.
As shown in the chart below, there are stark differences by age and household income. As people get older, the proportion of them who are “not better off” increases, with the exception of the 25-44 age group. Similarly, as income increases, the share of those who are “better off” increases.
What do the responses to the question show? For one thing, as is often the case, there are big gaps among different groups. Even with a nearly 2-to-1 overall margin saying they aren’t better off, some demographic groups don’t agree.
Still, based on recent presidential history, Biden’s hopes of being reelected in 2024 might be in serious jeopardy.
In one of the most devastating remarks made during the 1980 presidential campaign, then-candidate Ronald Reagan asked Americans during an Oct. 28 televised debate with President Jimmy Carter: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”
Until that debate, Carter had been getting closer in the polls. After the debate, the only one during the campaign, Carter faltered. He lost to Reagan in a landslide, 51% to 41%.
As Harvard University political scientist and former Clinton administration official Elaine Kamarck noted in 2012, Reagan in 1980 posed “what has become one of the most important campaign questions of all time.” Indeed, the question has become a common touchstone in each presidential cycle, as a 2020 Medium.com piece pointed out:
In 1984, Gallup asked voters, ‘Are you better off today than you were four years ago,’ and 44% (a plurality) said they were. Reagan won 58.8% of the vote.
In 1992, just 38% of voters said they were better off than four years earlier, and incumbent George H.W. Bush won just 37.4%, losing a landslide to Democrat Bill Clinton.
In 2004, 47% of voters said they were better off than they were four years earlier, and incumbent George W. Bush won 50.7% of the vote.
In 2012, 45% of voters said they were better off than they were four years earlier, and incumbent Barack Obama won 51.1%.
The pattern seems to be if you don’t have 40% of Americans or higher saying they’re better off, your presidential hopes might be doomed.
Still, it’s not certain that Biden will even run again.
Obvious mental health issues, congressional investigations into possible Biden family influence peddling, and potential strong challenges from within the Democratic Party itself could keep the president from running again, despite a recent White House announcement that he intended to run in 2024.
If he does, even getting poor marks on the economy’s performance and how Americans are doing financially won’t necessarily be decisive.
President Donald Trump’s own experience in 2020 shows why.
In September 2020, Gallup again asked Reagan’s question of average Americans. With less than two months to go before the election, a sizable 56% majority said they were better off than they were four years earlier, despite the COVID pandemic. And among those who ranked the economy as their No. 1 issue, a whopping 80% gave their support to Trump.
Yet Biden won.
Still, whether the Democrats put the 80-year-old Biden up again or go with a fresher face, with such a sizable share of the voting public unhappy with their financial situation, it suggests a steep uphill climb to win the next election.
Biden should take heed: A majority of Democrats already say they want someone other than him to run.
I&I/TIPP publishes timely, unique and informative data each month on topics of public interest. TIPP’s reputation for polling excellence comes from being the most accurate pollster for the past five presidential elections.
Terry Jones is an editor of Issues & Insights. His four decades of journalism experience include serving as national issues editor, economics editor, and editorial page editor for Investor’s Business Daily.