Syndicated columnist Byron York: The recession looms large in the 2024 election

  • Byron York

    Byron York

Updated 5/9/2023 10:42 AM

For more than two years now, Republicans have been predicting that President Joe Biden's big-spending policies will crash the U.S. economy into recession.

It hasn't happened yet, although the country did experience two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth -- a widely accepted definition of recession -- in the first and second quarters of 2022. But the economy climbed back into positive territory in the next quarter and has stayed there since.


Now, it's struggling. Well, it's always been struggling, but now it is more clearly struggling. The government reports that GDP grew at an anemic 1.1% annual rate in the first quarter of 2023. "Growth in the U.S. slowed considerably during the first three months of the year as interest rate increases and inflation took hold of an economy largely expected to decelerate even further ahead," reported CNBC.

If the economy is growing at a 1.1% rate now, and that rate is expected to "decelerate even further," then a recession could well be on the way. "The chance that a recession will have begun this year in the U.S. is probably about 70 percent," Harvard economist and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers tweeted a couple of weeks ago.

Say a recession does indeed come. How does that play out politically in the 2024 election? The answer should be obvious -- it hurts the party in power. But nothing is obvious these days.

Just as Republicans charge, the president bears some personal responsibility for the slowing economy, having pushed policies, mainly stratospheric government spending, that made the recession more likely. So Biden could be campaigning for reelection during a recession he helped cause.

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That should be a disaster for both Biden and the Democratic Party. But Biden has a strategy that has already begun to emerge: He will tell voters that things are, in fact, going well for them, that he has done so much for them, and what really matters is the threat of MAGA Republicans, even if former President Donald Trump is not on the GOP ticket.

By old political calculations, that would seem an impossible task for Biden. It's always "the economy, stupid," isn't it? Yes, until the most recent midterm elections suggested otherwise. In those elections, as in elections past, voters told pollsters the economy was their most important issue. But then they actually voted. And while the economy was indeed important, the issue's role in the election did not come out as expected.

Exit pollsters asked more than 18,000 respondents how they rated the condition of the economy. Almost nobody, just 2%, said the economy was "excellent." Some 21% said it was "good." Together, fewer than a quarter of those polled had a positive assessment of the economy. Some 38% said the economy was "not so good," the same percentage rated it "poor."

Of those who said the economy was "good," 89%, voted for Democrats. On the other side, 88% who said it was poor voted for Republicans.

What about that large group that said the economy was "not so good"? Some 62% voted for Democrats, making the difference in some races.


How did the Democrats convince 62% of voters who were troubled by the economy to vote for the party in power? Abortion played a role (and likely will again in 2024.) But beyond that was the Democrats' ability to frame the race as a referendum on MAGA. It's clear Biden intends to try it again in 2024. And it is the Republicans' task to convince voters that the economy is the most important issue and that Republicans can bring the U.S. back to prosperity.

The latest news makes clear that both inflation and the threat of recession remain serious. "We're not making great progress on inflation," Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office, told Fox Business. "The Fed has done a lot and accomplished little." And on the possibility of recession, he added: "I am among those who is really worried about getting through this year without a recession. I see the second half as very rough."

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