U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at Prince George's Community College on September 14, 2023 in Largo, Maryland. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Sep 17, 2023, 6:07 AM EDT
Ridgeland, South Carolina, has two new fire trucks.
The pandemic taxed the tiny town's aging fire department, and it needed improvements but lacked the budget, said Fire Chief Bradley Bonds.
"The air packs and different things that we were using were 20 something years old, so this was a huge upgrade for that and to be able to help us move forward," Bonds said.
With an infusion of $1 million, the fire department got new air packs, which provide air to firefighters during rescues, the two new trucks, and paid bonuses to the firefighters who worked during the pandemic.
"That was just a good boost for our staff. We lost one staff member due to Covid who passed away in the middle of it," Bonds said. "So it was a pretty tough time, but to be able to give some financial bonuses back to them was also a huge thing."
That $1 million came from President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which was passed in 2021 to revitalize the economy and replenish Americans' wallets. ARP's best-known initiatives included a fresh round of stimulus checks, expanded unemployment benefits, and monthly checks to parents. It also kept local governments afloat, allocating billions for areas to spend on wherever money was needed.
Years later, that funding is still bolstering a whole slew of initiatives from small-town fire equipment to paying off medical debt to building new community grocery stores. It's quintessential Bidenomics, to use the president's own words: It's about "building an economy from the middle out, the bottom up, not the top down."
But the problem is that sometimes everyday changes happening quietly in Middle America are not flashy enough to rise to the top and capture the nation's hearts and minds. One thing is clear: Despite some tangible accomplishments, Bidenomics is still not enough to tip the balance in how Americans view the economy — or Biden.
That could also be because Biden has so far failed to pass most of the marquee policies he pledged during during his campaign, like paid leave, minimum wage, or broad student-debt relief.
Instead, the parts of his agenda that he was able to successfully execute before Congressional gridlock are being more acutely felt in places like that South Carolina fire house, a Phoenix semiconductor factory, and new pipes full of clean water in Pennsylvania. For all the Americans in between, who are facing high prices and wages that can't keep up, it's not feeling like a booming economy.
"Just because President Biden and the administration says things are good, that doesn't mean that's how people feel," Alice Stewart, a veteran Republican strategist for several presidential campaigns and a CNN political commentator, told Insider.
But for the target groups seeing their everyday lives changed by Bidenomics funding, it can make a world of difference.
The hidden wins from Bidenomics
With 2024 looming, and Americans dreary on the economy, Bidenomics is still an elusive beast.
"It's not just a messaging problem, it's a real problem," Stewart said. "This is how people perceive the economy."
And people really, really don't seem to like it. An August Gallup poll of 1,014 Americans found that just 37% approve of Biden's handling of the economy, a far cry from 57% back in February 2021.
Some of that disconnect might be because the bigger impacts of Bidenomics are hidden away in the nooks and crannies of the country.
Take Rose Carter, the executive director of Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods, an Ohio-based nonprofit. Through a $150,000 American Rescue Plan grant, Carter was able to buy a truck and start a mobile food market that helps serve populations, like senior citizens, who might not otherwise have access to fresh food.
"It gives them more dignity," she said.
Look at the Biden administration's bipartisan infrastructure law. That trillion-dollar legislation will create millions of jobs per year, and help rebuild roads, bridges, and public transit, but it's a quieter build than, say, free childcare, and it plays out in less-sexy sectors of the economy like manufacturing and construction.
For Jodi Cutaiar, that legislation meant access to clean drinking water for the first time in nearly seven years. Cutaiar, a 45-year-old mother in Pennsylvania, has had to use bottled water for everything from cooking to coffee makers since tests found her area's water was contaminated with PFAS — what's known as "forever chemicals."
Now, through a $3.68 million grant from the infrastructure law, the community will get access to clean drinking water. The pipes are being laid, and houses are slowly getting hooked up.
When her house is hooked up, the first thing that Cutaiar wants to do is fill up a pot with water from the faucet and make dinner.
"I want to cook from the faucet," she said. "I know that sounds so simple and plain, but that's what I want to do."
But people really don't like Bidenomics — and it's hard to bridge that divide
The economy right now is full of disconnects. By most measures, it's a booming labor market. At the same time, gargantuan investments — like those in the American Rescue Plan — led to an economic recovery from the pandemic far faster than many anticipated. Companies have continued to add jobs and raise wages. GDP is growing. Bidenomics seems to be working.
"It's hard for most normal people to understand what the impact of Bidenomics is, because as president there's just so much that's out of your control and only a few things that are actually in your control," Max Berger, a political organizer and consultant who previously worked for Elizabeth Warren's campaign and the Justice Democrats, told Insider. "The parts of the economy that people don't like, like inflation, are largely out of the president's control."
Indeed, inflation seems to be the public's sticking point, especially housing, utility bills, and food. So it's understandable that people feel bad if they and their neighbors are all struggling to buy gas or afford a home.
Bidenomics, on the other hand, is not as visible as Biden intended thanks to Congressional inaction, Berger said. His now-defunct Build Back Better package would have meant highly visible dramatic spending on big priorities like paid leave or affordable childcare. Instead, the things that did pass are mediated not on a grand and public scale, but rather through things like the tax code or targeted grants.
Berger said that while many feared Biden would be too weak on things like student loan debt, the administration has actually gone further than expected — something they deserve credit for. Even as broad student loan forgiveness faces its own challenges, the Biden administration has already quietly forgiven $117 billion in loans for targeted groups.
"I think that would be felt by normal people much more directly if something like Build Back Better had passed instead of the IRA," he said, referring to the Inflation Reduction Act — another piece of smaller legislation that included some aspects of Build Back Better, but was more aimed at the tax code, healthcare prices, and green energy investments.
Americans who are not part of targeted populations receiving these grants are left to contend with sky-high prices on their own. Inflation, powered in part by firms hiding behind the guise of rising costs to hike up their prices, is dragging down Americans' wallets — and their views on the economy.
That all comes as Congress let child tax credit checks and other direct pandemic stimulus lapse. All of those measures had tangible effects, and their absence — which has led to child poverty doubling last year — is most likely weighing negatively on sentiment too.
And then there are those who actually think Biden has spent too much money, blaming gargantuan legislation for the current state of affairs.
"Going out and touting massive spending packages and still trying to promise to relieve college loan debt for people doesn't fit well with hardworking Americans who paid off their bills," Stewart, the Republican strategist, said.
Berger said that the "biggest thing" Biden needs to do to get Americans to understand the importance of Bidenomics is "to more clearly talk about how rebalancing the economy to benefit workers means taking on corporate power — and that his program is about shifting power from the concentrated wealth of corporations and billionaires to working people."