Americans Are Spending Lots — But They Still Don't Feel Good About The Economy : The NPR Politics Podcast The Labor Department said Friday that U.S. businesses added 390,000 jobs in May, as the unemployment rate held steady at a very low 3.6 percent and, despite rising prices, American continue to spend. Nevertheless, voters remain concerned about the economy and the White House is scrambling to find a convincing message.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, White House correspondent Asma Khalid, chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley, demographics and culture correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben, and education correspondent Anya Kamenetz.

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Americans Are Spending Lots — But They Still Don't Feel Good About The Economy

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AMY: Hi. This is Amy in Cambridge, Mass., where I am about to teach my last-ever law school class on the same day that my daughter turns 21.

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Wow.

AMY: This podcast was recorded at...

KEITH: 1:09 p.m. on Friday, June 3, 2022.

AMY: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but hopefully, we won't be too hungover from all the celebrating. OK. Here's the show.

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ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: That was a nice shoutout. You know, I have such a fond memory of Cambridge. We used to live there - very nostalgic of it all the time.

KEITH: No hangover, though.

KHALID: No, no hangover.

KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

KHALID: I'm Asma Khalid. I also cover the White House.

KEITH: And Scott Horsley is here with us. He covers the economy. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

KEITH: Great to have you back. And this time, it's not necessarily bad economic news, so let's jump right into it. People are worried about inflation and gas prices and all of those things, and we will get to that later. But today, there was a jobs report. It was jobs Friday, and this was not bad economic news.

HORSLEY: No. This was another strong jobs report, 390,000 jobs added in the month of May. That's a little bit of a downshift from the pace that we'd been on in the first four months of the year, but that's to be expected when unemployment is as low as it is - just 3.6%. The job gains were pretty evenly spread across the economy. One weakness was in the retail sector, where we actually saw a loss of jobs, but that probably signals people are, as expected, shifting a little bit away from buying stuff and spending more on services like amusement parks and travel.

KHALID: You know, one thing I was struck by when we heard the president give remarks today about these monthly job numbers was a sense that, you know, he described these as being excellent to refer to the historic level of low unemployment but then also seemed to acknowledge that, you know, a lot of Americans are anxious and talked about inflation.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We've laid an economic foundation that's historically strong, and now we're moving forward to a new moment where we can build on that foundation, build a future of stable, steady growth so we can bring down inflation without sacrificing all the historic gains we've made. And that's what we're beginning to see in today's jobs report.

KHALID: There does seem to be this desire, I would say, out of the White House, not just from the president this week, to what I would say is kind of like level set expectations moving forward. There's a sense that, you know, you're not going to see gangbusters job growth as we've seen over the course of the last year and trying to explain to the public why that's the case and, in the words of President Biden today, why that is allegedly a good thing. You heard from the president a sense of, you know, pointing to these other economic metrics, whether it's family savings or job numbers, to get a sense of why, you know, these things could help create a strong economic foundation that will help the country tackle inflation. And that is essentially the argument that I think we're going to keep hearing from this White House.

KEITH: Yeah. So one thing - Scott, this was a week of the White House focusing on the economy. Yes, they had a lot of other things going on. But the president met with the chairman of the Federal Reserve earlier in the week and the treasury secretary. There was a real concerted effort by the administration this week to say, economy, we see you. We're working on it. Don't worry. One part of their messaging, as Asma alluded to, is that administration officials were essentially warning before this jobs report that, you know, we're maybe not going to have great jobs reports. Maybe job growth could slow significantly. Maybe it could get down to 150,000 jobs a month. Maybe there could be job losses. And then this jobs report came out, and that didn't happen. Is that still a worry?

HORSLEY: Well, it didn't happen in May, but it probably will happen in the months to come. And it's not necessarily something we should be worried about. Keep in mind, when the pandemic hit in March of 2020, the U.S. economy lost 22 million jobs. We've now replaced 96% of those jobs. We also had an enormous number of people left the workforce when the pandemic hit. They've been coming back into the labor force in fits and starts over the last two years.

We've now got a labor force that's almost exactly back to the size it was in February of 2020. And at that time, of course, the unemployment rate was 3.5%, and we were adding jobs at a measured pace. You're not going to have 400, 500, 600,000 jobs added a month when you're basically back to full employment. And we're pretty close to that at this point. So you will probably see a slowdown in job growth, and that's not necessarily something to worry about. This was a jobs report that would be consistent with a soft landing story.

KEITH: I just think about gas prices, right? Like, the average price for a gallon of regular gas right now is north of $4.75. That is a lot, and that has to have spillover effects. It certainly is having spillover effects into the mood of the electorate and the mood of the American public. Like, people are in a sour mood. Last week, I watched several focus groups put on by the AARP with women over 50 - you know, Democrats, Republicans, independents, a variety of demographics - and the level of concern about the economy, the level of concern about the direction of the country, and then asked, well, why are you worried about it? And they say, inflation, price of gas. It's real. It is real, and it has to be a real political problem for the party in power.

KHALID: And it's been indicated that - and you've seen this in polling for months - that inflation, rising prices has been the top economic concern for voters. I think the struggle is, though - you know, I was talking to an economist about this and basically, the idea of, like, the White House trying to shift its message on inflation - right? - you've heard them, I think, over the last 15 months try out different messages about how they're dealing with this. You get the sense from the president that he's trying to present a level of empathy, sort of I hear you, I feel you. I see your pain. The challenge is, like, until gas prices go down, until grocery prices go down, no message is really going to cut through. And there are very limited levers that any president has to curb inflation.

HORSLEY: Yeah. And the connection between higher prices and, in particular, gasoline prices, which are so visible, and consumer sentiment is pretty well established. I mean, when gas prices go up, it always causes a funk in the way people feel about the economy. That said, we're not seeing an enormous spillover in, for example, consumer spending. Consumers have cut back on driving a little bit amidst these high gas prices, but they're still spending pretty freely in other areas. And, of course, consumer spending is a huge driver of economic activity. So while people are not feeling very good about this economy, they are still behaving as if this were a pretty strong economy, which, in fact, it is.

KEITH: It's a very interesting thing to watch, and mood can ultimately affect the economy, though, as you say, it isn't yet. All right, Scott Horsley, thank you for joining us once again.

HORSLEY: Always good to be with you, especially when the news is positive.

KEITH: Yeah, for a change, Scott. Time for a quick break and, when we get back, school board politics.

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KEITH: And we're back. And I have new friends, Danielle Kurtzleben and Anya Kamenetz. Anya, you are with the education team here at NPR. And, Danielle, you have been doing a story about education, though, really, about politics.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Yes. I mean, I - both and, right? Yeah. I was down in South Texas. I was doing a few stories, but one was to look at school board races. Our listeners who are plugged in - and I'm sure they are because they listen to our podcast - have probably noticed that school board races, school board meetings have gotten heated, have become a really big center of attention in the last couple of years. And so I went down to talk to people who are running.

KEITH: Let's just give that background, which is that school board races are traditionally pretty sleepy, but they have become a focus of conservative activism over the last few years. And your story is about how Democrats aren't ceding any territory to the conservatives on school board races. And they have now fully engaged the fight for control of local school boards, too.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. I suppose I would amend that to they're trying not to cede any ground. We'll see how that happens. But yes, you're absolutely right. I mean, school board races, first of all, are overwhelmingly nonpartisan. So they don't have the exact same dynamics as races further up the ballot where you run and have an R or a D or what have you after your name, right? But yes, COVID helped really amp this up because COVID - as our listeners, of course, know, COVID kept kids home from school. It meant parents were paying more attention, in some cases, to the curriculums in their schools. And it really got parents amped up over all sorts of things, whether it's masking, whether it's how race or LGBTQ issues are taught, all of that.

So, yeah, I spoke to a young woman named Maryam Zafar, who is running for school board in the Austin suburb of Round Rock in Texas. Now, what makes Zafar unusual is that she is 19 years old, and you don't have a lot of 19-year-olds running for school board. But she is running in part after going to a training from the progressive group Run For Something. Run For Something is a group that has recruited and promoted candidates much more up ballot for several years. But this is part of a bigger push that they're putting in, in part in reaction to the big conservative push that there has been, which I'm sure we're going to talk much more about. And one thing that Maryam told me is that, yes, she has seen things in her school district get much more contentious in the last few years.

MARYAM ZAFAR: I have definitely seen that here. We've had a lot of disruption in our school board around mask mandates, and it's been a disruption to focusing on student outcomes and the health and wellness of students.

KURTZLEBEN: And, yeah, this makes Round Rock really one example of the kind of disruption that there can be at school board meetings. There was one notable meeting that multiple people told me about and that I saw a video of as well last September that resulted in two men getting arrested afterwards. It was a meeting about mask mandates, and there was a lot of disruption, a lot of people who wanted into the room who couldn't get in. So, yes, this is a district that has seen a lot of fighting.

KEITH: Well, and, Anya, you and I were both reporting on school district fights back in the fall with the school board elections in 2021, sort of off-year elections. But the idea of school boards finding themselves at the center of or placing themselves at the center of culture wars of various kinds goes back, you know, forever, right?

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Yeah. That's right, Tam. I mean, it's centuries at least that, you know, school boards have been a successful front.

KEITH: I was thinking generations. But centuries, let's go for it.

KAMENETZ: Well, in the 1840s, just briefly, there was a - curriculum battles over how secular was the curriculum going to be. Was it going to be Protestant? Was it going to be influenced by the Catholic immigrant groups that were coming in? So really, it goes way, way back. What are our children learning? Is it - does it match my family's values? But I think it's really important to note, as Danielle has, that the agitation over the last couple of election cycles is really driven, very concerted efforts by these national, right-wing groups, many of which are connected with the Coke network, that are funding and supporting and offering informational resources and other organizing resources to get parents out and to get parents upset about these kind of hot button topics.

KEITH: But what's also interesting is that although there is a huge amount of noise and a huge amount of focus, it may be a vocal minority.

KAMENETZ: That's exactly right. So we were so curious about this, so we did a survey of parents. And what we found is a very robust finding, earlier this spring, that most parents are pretty happy with their own kids' school, and that's despite the disruptions of COVID. And we asked specifically about, you know, controversial topics. We found three-quarters of respondents said, my child's school is doing a fine job, a good job keeping me informed. And it's a really small minority of parents that are concerned about issues like race and racism, gender and sexuality, or U.S. history in general. And what's interesting is that there weren't that many partisan divides. So, you know, there are parents in every classroom who are somewhat discontented with what the kids are learning, but that discontent comes on both ends of the political spectrum, you know? And again, it's a small minority wherever you look.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. Now, all of that said, even if it is a small minority, that is absolutely true. And also it is possible for a small minority to make quite a difference. I mean, there have been parents, like Anya said, for a very long time who have been upset about this thing or that thing pertaining to the culture wars taught in school. I mean, think about the '90s with evolution and sex ed, that sort of thing. But I talked to Rebecca Jacobsen, who studies education policy at Michigan State University, and she said that this time is different in a very particular way.

REBECCA JACOBSEN: What's different this time is the coordination, the financing, and then social media really being able to spread a very consistent message to so many school districts so quickly, whereas in previous eras before sort of internet and social media, these things happened but at much slower paces. And in some ways that slower pace gave rise to alternative voices, voices that maybe moderated the discussion.

KURTZLEBEN: So in other words, what - we've talked about this quite a bit on this podcast, how a lot of lower-level races are getting nationalized. This means that school board races are to some degree nationalized. And one thing that's easy to ignore in there is that it's not just about polarization, it's also about financing. This could lead these races to get more expensive.

KEITH: I'm going to put on my, like, nerd glasses here and say that when I was in high school, I was the student representative on our adult school board, and I went to a year's worth of school board meetings.

KAMENETZ: Wow.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

KAMENETZ: Wow.

KURTZLEBEN: Of course you did.

KEITH: Of course I did - like, yes. And what I learned is that a huge amount of what they do is incredibly mundane. It's not these big, high-profile things that people are fighting about. It's stuff about just, like, the sheer functioning of the schools and not about, you know, high-minded debates about curriculum and books.

KAMENETZ: Well, and I think if I can hop onto that - you know, talking to the school board folks that I did when I did this reporting in the fall, it's very, very hard from the day to day to do the business of the district when every time you hold a meeting, there are people holding - you know, wearing T-shirts, waving signs and yelling and screaming about something that has very little to do with what they actually need to get done. And in many cases, you know, I heard from districts that had to stop having in-person meetings or limit comment because it just wasn't productive. It was no longer that public forum that it needs to be in order to get people's business done and actually get the schools running.

KEITH: All right. Well, we are going to leave it there for now. Anya, thanks for hanging out with us.

KAMENETZ: Thanks so much for having me.

KEITH: And we are going to take a quick break, and when we get back, Can't Let It Go.

And we're back, and it is time to end the show, like we do every week, with Can't Let It Go, the part of the show where we talk about the things from the week that we just can't stop talking about - politics or otherwise. Danielle, we have brought you back. Hello, Danielle.

KURTZLEBEN: Hello.

KEITH: And what can't you let go of?

KURTZLEBEN: I can't let go of the fact that bees are fish. Let's just let that sink in.

KEITH: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: This is a nice piece of dada-ist (ph) headline.

KHALID: I thought they're insects.

KURTZLEBEN: No, no, no, no.

KHALID: Aren't insects...

KURTZLEBEN: Asma, no - you're mistaken. They are fish. Now you see, this is a delightful but also fascinating and important story - I don't mean to deny its importance - but a story out of California. I am going to be quoting from the Reuters story here. So basically what this is about is that this is a yearslong court case. And seven agricultural groups were arguing that the California Endangered Species Act expressly protects only birds, mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles and plants. Now, you know what I didn't say in there?

KEITH: Insects.

KHALID: Insects.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. I didn't say insects. I didn't say bees. I didn't - nothing like that. But a court has now ruled that fish - I'm reading from the article again here - fish is commonly understood to refer to aquatic species. The term of art employed by the legislature is not so limited, is what the judge who ruled in this case ruled, that basically the Endangered Species Act, it doesn't define fish itself, but the California Fish and Game Code - I'm getting in the weeds here - the definition includes any mollusc, crustacean, invertebrate or amphibian. And bees, of course, are invertebrates. So basically the question is whether, you know, bees should be considered endangered. And...

KEITH: Do the farmers want the bees to be considered endangered or not?

KURTZLEBEN: No, they do not.

KEITH: OK.

KURTZLEBEN: And the folks on the side of the Endangered Species Act are saying, you know, it should be broadly interpreted to say that, yeah, we should protect the bees. And bees, of course, have been under threat in many parts of the country and the world. I'm a little out of my depth here. But, you know, bees are very, very important to the ecosystem and in many places they are under threat, so...

KHALID: Well, and they are critically important to very important California crops, including almonds and, I mean, fruits and vegetables, all of these things that need bees, not to, like, bee-splain (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZLEBEN: I'm just saying that, like, I know this is a very important story. It's just that the lovely surreality of this headline - like black is white, up is down, bees are fish - it just delighted me this week.

KEITH: Asma, what can't you let go of?

KHALID: So as you all may know, I am always very intrigued by the royals across the pond. And this week, I'm sure you all know this if you've, like, plugged into any bit of news, the queen, her majesty, celebrated her Platinum Jubilee, which marks 70 years on the crown. And I am just floored by this because I am trying to imagine having the same job for 70 years (laughter). I can't even sometimes imagine (laughter) doing the same job for four years. So try to imagine having the same job for 70 years. And at that, she has to be, like, very limited in what she can say and do. So in my research of the queen, I discovered - did you know this - since we're on the POLITICS PODCAST, I feel like I should mention this - she has met 13 of the last 14 U.S. presidents.

KURTZLEBEN: Wow.

KHALID: That's wild.

KURTZLEBEN: Huh.

KHALID: Like, she has basically observed U.S. history from her vantage point. But in this job, she can't, like, say or do a whole lot. So it's a job where she has to, you know, be silent at many times, which I just think, for a radio journalist, would be very hard. So it's a good thing I'm not a royal (laughter).

KEITH: But also she doesn't have a choice. I mean, she can't do, like, a que-ixt (ph), you know (laughter)?

KHALID: She could. She could leave. Remember...

KEITH: Could she?

KHALID: ...Monarchs have left in the past. That's how her dad became the king. I'm really into the royals, yes.

KURTZLEBEN: No, this shows how little I know. And I'm glad we have an expert on this podcast.

KHALID: Anyhow, Tam, what can't you let go of?

KEITH: So I don't know if you guys remember back in March, I had a Can't Let It Go about a parrot, an African grey parrot named Echo, who lives at the Maryland Zoo and was doing abstract art. And I was, like, pretty snarky about it or at least I remember being snarky because I was skeptical (laughter). And my skepticism was met with an email from Mike Evitts of the Maryland Zoo, who wrote to say that they heard our segment.

KHALID: Oh, they're pod listeners. Excellent.

KEITH: Yes. And that Echo made a painting for us of the NPR logo.

KURTZLEBEN: Tam, are you saying a parrot made a painting for you out of spite? Is that what (laughter) we're saying here? Because that's awesome.

KEITH: So what I discovered - I gave Mike a call today and was like, so what is up with this? He explained that African grey parrots are very smart, and you really do have to keep them busy. And this is a way that they have come up with to keep this bird entertained.

MIKE EVITTS: When you work with animals, you have to embrace the absurd. So when we heard the segment, we thought, well, you know, this is a great way to publicize our conservation programs but also, more importantly, give Echo something to do to keep her busy.

KHALID: Oh, my God. It seems like entertaining a kid during COVID.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, it sounds like a toddler sort of (laughter).

KEITH: So I was like, if your highly intelligent bird is bored, why not introduce your highly intelligent bird to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST? The bird - you know, Echo could become a listener and get her intellectual stimulation that way.

KURTZLEBEN: And start mimicking us.

KEITH: And he said...

EVITTS: Politics today makes her too tense.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZLEBEN: Fair. I feel you, Echo.

KEITH: So there you go. She's going to stick with painting. And I will tweet out a picture of the artwork. She signed it herself to prove that it's authentic.

KURTZLEBEN: It's very good.

KEITH: All right. That is a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Our editors are Eric McDaniel and Krishnadev Calamur. Our producers are Lexie Schapitl, Elena Moore and Casey Morrell. Thanks to Brandon Carter. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.

KHALID: And I'm Asma Khalid. I also cover the White House.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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