The viral $16 McDonald's meal that may explain voter anger at Biden

A McDonald's Double Quarter Pounder, Tuesday, March 6, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
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On Dec. 20, 2022, Topher Olive went to a McDonald's in the town of Post Falls, Idaho, and ordered a limited edition "smoky" double quarter pounder BLT with fries and a Sprite. The meal cost $16.10, and he posted the receipt on TikTok.

Even though he had ordered a novelty item, Olive's video about a $16 McDonald's order went viral, racking up hundreds of thousands of views. After a McDonald's revenue report recently, the same post went viral again earlier this month, with at least a half-dozen news outlets - including the Washington Examiner, the New York Post and Newsmax - picking up the story of Olive's pricey patty. One YouTube video from this month with 2 million views inaccurately describes it as "a Big Mac meal" that cost $16. Posts on Reddit, the conservative site Twitchy and elsewhere tied the cost to President Biden's economic management: Inflation, the theory went, had gotten so out of control that the price of a fast-food burger was approaching $20.

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These stories soon reached the White House Office of Digital Strategy, which tracked the meme as one of many exaggerated examples of the nation's economic woes, according to a White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to reflect internal discussions. In reality, inflation has been steadily subsiding, and last week the government reported price hikes had eased yet again in October. The average Big Mac nationally as of this summer cost $5.58, up from $4.89 - or roughly 70 cents - before Biden took office, according to an index maintained by the Economist. That's up more than 10 percent, but it's not $16.

And yet one anomalous price from one store in Idaho 11 months ago was ripping through people's social media feeds as if it explained the entire economy. One Democratic official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said: "What are we supposed to do, tell the president or Charles E. Schumer to send a tweet saying, 'Hey, most Big Macs aren't that expensive?' It would look ridiculous." A spokesperson from McDonald's did not return a request for comment.

The Big Mac conundrum reflects what Biden aides and senior Democratic officials regard as one of their most vexing challenges ahead of the 2024 presidential election. Even as inflation has fallen to a manageable 3 percent, and although the labor market has remained hot amid strong growth, voters still don't like the economy, and they blame the president.

Overcoming this discontent - and understanding what is driving it - has become a central priority of the White House and Democratic lawmakers, leading to a fierce debate among economists, pollsters and other experts.

As the administration tries to figure out how to improve its economic message, White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients has held internal meetings over the last several weeks with top communications and economic officials, according to two people familiar with internal matters, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the discussions. (A White House spokeswoman declined to comment.)

Former president Donald Trump has made ridiculing Biden's economic performance one of his main campaign messages, raising the stakes for the White House even more.

The administration continues to be torn over how to respond to the negative polling.

On the one hand, administration officials say Biden deserves more credit for his economic accomplishments - a booming job market; substantial wage increases for low-income workers; rapid economic growth - that they say are the result of his 2021 economic stimulus and other legislative measures. Americans won't give Biden credit for those accomplishments if the president and his allies don't talk about them, many strategists and party officials argue.

When asked about young voters' economic frustrations with the president by CNBC on Monday, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said, "I'm aware of that, and I think it's our job to explain to Americans what President Biden has done to improve the economy."

And yet some aides are uneasy about pushing Biden to cheerlead for the economy in a way that appears disconnected from the public's frustrations. White House officials are quick not to dismiss the pain of inflation, which Yellen emphasized Monday, too, and some voters regard the suggestion that they simply do not appreciate their circumstances as elitist and condescending. Rather than risk appearing out of touch, some pollsters and other Democrats maintain, Biden should do more to concentrate on criticizing large corporations and Republicans for making average Americans' economic circumstances worse.

"There's a huge divide internally about whether we're going to claim success or try to draw a contrast" with Republicans, said one Democratic consultant who has pushed White House officials to stop touting economic accomplishments and instead hammer the GOP's economic plans. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect private conversations. "I don't know how long we can keep doing this and expect a different result."

At the center of this debate is a dispute over to what extent social media and perceptions - rather than real conditions in the economy - are fueling voters' angst.

There is at least some evidence that the digital world is painting a bleaker picture than the statistics support.

Brendan Gahan, a digital marketing consultant, said that data from TikTok shows conversation around #economycollapsing reached a fever pitch this past month and generated tens of millions of views - even as inflation markedly cooled, growth remained robust and unemployment stayed near record lows.

TikTok abounds with misleading or inaccurate information about the economy. One video in September with 2.3 million views said there was a "SILENT DEPRESSION." Another video from this summer with 2.1 million views claimed, incorrectly, "We have the lowest purchasing power we have ever had in American history," and asserted that inflation-adjusted wages are lower than they were then. (Disposable income per capita is, in fact, more than five times larger than it was in 1930, adjusted for inflation.) A third video, with 1.8 million views, similarly falsely claimed, "We currently are making less than the height of the Great Depression." TikTok and YouTube have dozens of videos of this kind, making similarly false claims.

Brian Hanly, CEO of Bullish Studio, a financial media company that works with content creators, said that it is going to be difficult for Biden to overcome this narrative no matter how many charts and numbers aides provide.

"We live in a reply guy world, and dunking on people [including the president] is what's going to get even more engagement, and more engagement equals more money," Hanly said.

Some economists think these kinds of comments are not just wrong but dangerous. They have been astounded by polling data on Biden's economic approval and surveys of consumer sentiment, where results during the Biden administration are similar to the Great Recession, when unemployment was close to three times as high as it is now. These economists fear that these exaggerated stories will ultimately lead to a worse outcome - perhaps helping Trump win reelection - and that it is vital to make clear that this remains by many measures one of the best recoveries in modern U.S. history. They also express confusion over why consumers continue to spend so heavily, if the pessimism is driven by economic insecurity.

The White House official said the administration is working with TikTok creators to tell positive stories of Biden's economic stewardship, while also working with social media platforms to counter misinformation.

"Folks have bought burgers at the wrong price throughout the history of time, and that includes economists. At all other times, we would look at our burger and our bill and say, 'Wow, I wish I'd done more addition and subtraction,'" said Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Michigan. "At the present moment, though, we instead say, 'Wow, I hate this economy.' Folks are viewing everything they buy through that lens."

Will Stancil, a research fellow at the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, said the problem goes far beyond TikTok, pointing out the media also focuses disproportionately on negative news. He said that Republican voters turned on the economy as soon as Biden was elected - hardly a sign of underlying conditions.

It is not a conspiracy theory, Stancil argued, to believe the media ecosystem has warped people's views, particularly given how hard it is to assess nationwide economic conditions from one's own personal experience.

"This has a lot to do with the social and media environment that young people live in. People's ideas of things like the economy - which they can't experience directly - are being constructed from what they're hearing from other people. It's being constructed from what you hear from your peers, trusted sources, and the news media, and so forth," Stancil said, arguing that while people can have their own experiences of the economy, they cannot individually form a comprehensive picture of it. "People begin to incorporate that into their worldview."

And yet other experts and even some Democratic officials see political danger in this approach, in part because voter discontent - even if prone to occasional rhetorical excess, especially on the internet - is driven by a real deterioration in people's conditions.

Inflation has subsided, but price hikes continue, and wages remain below their pre-pandemic trajectory. With the expiration of trillions of dollars in covid aid, and the resumption of evictions and student loan payments, millions of voters suddenly see worse financial circumstances than they did a year ago.

In fact, from 2015 to 2021, more than half of the country saw their disposable income increase relative to the prior year. But with inflation and the disappearance of covid aid, that number has flipped. In 2022, at the same time voters soured on the economy, close to 60 percent of people saw their income decline relative to last year, according to Matt Bruenig, founder of the People's Policy Project, a think tank that supports expansion of the welfare state.

"The insistence that the economy is just obviously good and that grievances against it are necessarily rooted in bad motivations or perpetual goalpost-moving is really just lazy punditry," Bruenig wrote.

Other issues also feed economic frustration: high interest rates that have put the dream of homeownership out of reach for millions; rising rents for everyone else; and persistently high grocery prices, among other factors.

As inflation has ebbed, wages have begun rising slightly faster than prices - but compared with the trajectory before the pandemic, wages adjusted for inflation are well below where they would have been, according to calculations by Jason Furman, a Harvard economist who served as a top Obama administration official. (The number fluctuates depending on which pre-pandemic years are used for the comparison.)

Jordan Uhl, a content creator and progressive activist, said it's no surprise that TikTok - populated disproportionately by younger people and people who work for hourly wages - captures dissatisfaction with the economy.

"There's this cadre of number-crunching paperwork obsessives who are convinced that if some report says inflation is slowing, that means everything is great and everybody who feels something different is either lying or brainwashed by TikTok," he said. "The idea that people are just making this up or are misled about their own material conditions is absurd."

Zaid Admani, a content creator with nearly 400,000 followers who posts about finance and economic topics, said that people are increasingly learning about financial concepts on TikTok - but that many have a very negative view of the country's economic outlook.

"People feel a sense of dread," he said.

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