The number that matters

There seems to be a high level of frustration in the US today across the political spectrum. The number of Americans who think America is on the wrong track is creeping up toward 70 percent. Democrats are (a little late) trying to show that this view is misguided and that Barack Obama has actually achieved a great deal of success. And they’re not entirely wrong.
But there’s a key number that’s missing from that graph, and it’s real median household income.

That number, in real terms, is terrible. It’s gone down throughout Obama’s presidency, and it has stayed down. It’s now at the same level it was in 1995, as it was climbing out of the recession trough that took down George H.W. Bush, made Ross Perot briefly plausible, and beat up Bill Clinton in 1994.

There are some systemic reasons for the decline that go beyond the economics of the moment. The retirement of the baby boomers is likely a factor, though I gather from talking to my parents that a lot of that retirement was involuntary and isn’t going very well. And older people are a significant part of the electorate, especially in non-presidential years.

If you wonder how much median income matters, look at this graph of satisfaction over time.

It looks a lot like median income, doesn’t it?  It bottoms out in the early 90s, climbs steadily through the Clinton years to a wobbly high, starts to fall after 2001, and starts a decline in the 2000s.

There are a lot of complicated economics and statistics and demographics behind median income, including the changing composition of households and much more. But it seems to be a significant factor in the national mood, and it may help explain why many Americans feel that the drop in unemployment and the rise in the Dow is somehow not helping them.