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With midterms looming, voters don't feel good about Biden's handling of the economy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The economy might look good on paper - record wage gains, an unprecedented number of jobs created and GDP growth not seen in decades. But poll after poll shows voters don't feel good about how the president is handling the economy. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: President Biden seems mystified why he's not getting credit for a booming economy. He regularly cites GDP stats and job numbers. Here he was on Friday.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Our economy created 6.6 million jobs.

KHALID: Take a look at the chart, Biden told reporters, and go all the way back to Ronald Reagan.

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BIDEN: Look how many jobs we created in an average per month. This has - it's never happened before. And look. History has been made here.

KHALID: By most economic metrics, the president is right. But economists say there is one key data point that has been stubbornly problematic for the president - the inflation rate. It's at 7%. It hasn't been this high since the early '80s.

JACK LEW: Inflation is something people feel, you know, in a different way than they do other economic indicators. The price of gas is reflected every time you get a tank of gas.

KHALID: Jack Lew served as Treasury secretary under President Obama, and he remembers it was a challenge for them to figure out how to take credit for the president's accomplishments after the recession while also acknowledging there was more work to do.

LEW: There's an old notion that you cannot tell people how they feel and that they feel better than they do.

KHALID: And that gets at the crux of the political problem for Biden because it comes on top of COVID. Here's Austan Goolsbee.

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE: At some grand level, I still basically think until the time when the pandemic is done, you know people are going to be upset about the economy.

KHALID: Goolsbee was a chief economic adviser in the Obama White House.

GOOLSBEE: People's feeling about the economy is colored by where they expected they were going to be at this point.

KHALID: And two years into this pandemic, people are frustrated and fatigued. But it's not just about the virus. Inflation affects people's feelings far more than almost any other economic stat.

Here's Larry Summers. He led the National Economic Council in the Obama administration.

LARRY SUMMERS: More unemployment is the difference between a job and not a job for 2 or 3% of the population. More inflation is higher prices for 100% of the population.

KHALID: And he says inflation makes people unhappy in ways that are disproportionate to the economic concerns that economists have about inflation. People feel ripped off. Wages for low-income workers have risen, but inflation has wiped away a lot of that money. Summers has been sounding the alarm on inflation for months, both internally at the White House but also to pretty much any journalist who would listen.

SUMMERS: I think ultimately, there's not a lot that the administration can do that will affect the inflation rate.

KHALID: From an economist standpoint, that's true. Beyond maybe doing something around tariffs and trade, whether inflation goes up or down is in the hands of the Federal Reserve.

But from a messaging standpoint, in a midterm election year, that is not a satisfactory explanation for voters. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says she hears two major concerns. Voters are anxious about economic instability from another potential COVID wave, and they're worried about the rising cost of living.

CELINDA LAKE: It hits them every day. It hits them every purchase. And it really makes them feel depressed about the economy. They are convinced that wages are not keeping up with the rising cost because you get a paycheck twice a month. You buy something that's more expensive every day.

KHALID: Initially, the president and his team insisted price increases were merely transitory. But over time, Lake says Biden did pivot and began acknowledging more of the pain people were feeling at the gas pump or the grocery store.

LAKE: I think he's doing a lot of that in his current messaging, but we've got to repeat, repeat, repeat.

BILL GALSTON: Bill Clinton once said, when there's a problem, people don't necessarily expect you to solve it overnight, but they have to catch you trying.

KHALID: That last voice is Bill Galston. He was a policy adviser in the Clinton White House.

GALSTON: So if I were Biden's scheduler, I would have him out a couple of days a week, dramatizing his commitment to the fight against inflation.

KHALID: Because Galston says if inflation is anywhere near 7% on Election Day this year, the results will not be pretty for Democrats.

Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.