By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – The two-horse race for the presidency may not satisfy people who wished for different candidates atop the Republican and Democratic tickets, but it has at least focused the debate on how well the American economy is – or isn’t – performing.

When former President Donald Trump used his Truth Social platform last week to ask, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” the public reply he got from President Joe Biden was a resounding yes – and not just because people were dying by the thousands at the start of the COVID pandemic in March 2020.

Biden and the White House pointed to falling inflation, strong public markets, low unemployment and a U.S. economy that is outperforming most of the free world, from the European Union to Japan.

Statistics support that view, but it doesn’t necessarily resonate with consumers who are still smarting from 7% inflation, $5 per gallon gasoline and soaring grocery bills … all in recent memory.

Here are some economic indicators that will likely remain front and center between now and November:

  • Inflation has cooled to an annual rate of 3.2%, down from high of 7% in 2021 and 6.5% in 2022. It remains to be seen if the Federal Reserve goal of 2% is hit by late this year; even 2.5% may be a stretch.
  • Still worried about inflation, leaders of the Fed kept core interest rates unchanged late this month but signaled they will make three, quarter-point rate cuts by the end of the year.
  • Interest rates on a 30-year mortgage have dipped a bit under 7% for a U.S. average, down from 7.8% even six months ago, but still not low enough to stimulate more housing stock turnover. Mortgage rates were generally at 3% as late as 2021.
  • Unemployment in February ticked slightly higher to 3.9%, but remained roughly where it averaged in 2022 and 2023. It peaked at nearly 15% in 2020 during COVID before falling throughout 2021.
  • The Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled during COVID but has climbed steadily since, flirting with the 39,000 mark of late compared with 28,400 in February 2020.
  • The International Monetary Fund forecast 2.1% growth in the U.S. economy for 2024, well over twice the growth predicted for Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan, for example.

That robust U.S. growth is coming with a steep price because federal debt as a share of the U.S. economy continues to soar. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office predicts the debt will be 107% of the gross domestic product in 2029 and keep rising well into mid-century.

That’s a source of unease for many economists and other observers, who believe government stimulus spending must be curtailed quickly. Spending cuts are hard to do, however, in an aging society with rising Social Security and Medicare payments and a defense budget grappling with uncertain times.

Layer in concerns such as insurance companies pulling back on property coverage, a sense that quality health care is harder to find in some places, and a populist rebellion of sorts against public and private bureaucracies, and it’s understandable there is a disconnect between traditional indicators and the public outlook.

Other intangibles for some people include the continuing war in Ukraine, terrorist attacks, weather-related disasters, crime and immigration patterns. Immigration has historically been a net plus for the U.S. economy and states such as Wisconsin but is not widely viewed as such today.

It could be much worse. In 1980, inflation was 14% and unemployment hit 7% in an election year when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter. The Great Recession that peaked in 2010 saw unemployment hit 9.63% and remain high for several years. If the experts are correct, the worst that will happen yet in 2024 is a “soft landing,” not a hard economic crash.

Don’t be surprised, however, if the gap between economic data sets and public perception remains palpable. In Wisconsin this fall, that gap could be part of the swing-state equation.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at