The unemployment rate has fallen by nearly three percentage points and the U.S. economy has added 4.6 million jobs since President Obama won re-election in November 2012, but voters in the midterm elections gave him no credit for the improvement.
Analysis of exit polls from Tuesday’s elections shows that voters who say their finances are getting worse voted 2 to 1 for Republican candidates, and that 6 out of 10 voters were dissatisfied with the Obama administration’s management.
Obama pointed out Wednesday in his post-election press conference that although many economic indicators are improving, "there are still a lot of folks out there who are anxious and are hurting and are having trouble making ends meet, or are worried about their children’s future."
"And it’s my job to give them some confidence that this town can work to respond to some of those worries that folks have," Obama acknowledged, adding that "we haven’t done a good enough job convincing them of that. And I understand that."
Nevertheless, only 45 percent of voters listed the economy as the top problem facing the country, down from nearly 60 percent in 2012 and 63 percent in 2010. Seven in 10 said the economy was in bad shape, but that number also declined from previous elections.
President Obama said Wednesday that concerns about his administration might be dragging down voters' estimation of the recovery. "If they’ve been watching Washington over the last two, four years, what they’ve seen is a lot of arguing and a lot of gridlock but not a lot of concrete actions, at least legislatively, that have made a difference in their lives.”
Part of the problem is likely that many people have taken lower-paying jobs or have gone years without pay raises, problems reflected in the fact that median wages have barely kept pace with inflation over the past few years. The Census Bureau reported in September that the median household income in 2013 was effectively unchanged from 2012 and remained 8 percent below its 2007 level. More recent statistics have shown further stagnation in 2014.
"Despite economic growth, wages and income have still not gone up," Obama noted. "And that’s a long-term trend that we’ve seen for 10, 20, 30 years. And it makes people worried about not just their own situation but whether their kids are going to be doing better than they did, which is the essence of the American dream."
Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, also suggested that sluggish wage growth was at the heart of Democratic candidates’ struggles in an interview on MSNBC Wednesday.
"I think that there is a seething anger by the middle class at Washington, and I think that both parties need to listen to that,” he said, adding that “it's about the middle class' pocketbooks, and it's about our ability to come together where we can."
But whatever the underlying cause of voters’ negative perceptions about the economy, it’s clear that the economy has colored their perception of Obama and the direction of the country as a whole.
Almost half of all voters said that they expect life for the next generation to be worse than it is today, with only one in five expecting it to be better.
“This pessimism about the state of the economy also appears to be strongly affecting Americans' views of the direction of the country as a whole,” wrote political scientists Monika McDermott and Stanley Feldman in a post-election analysis for CBS. “Voters do not appear to be seeing the same positive signs that many economists do. As with the economy, those concerned about the direction of the country voted overwhelmingly for Republicans in House elections.”