OPINION

Are we in a recession? America's economy stinks no matter what you call it.

Politicians rarely prosper by arguing with the electorate. Once people are convinced the economy is faltering, they resent being told otherwise.

James S. Robbins
Opinion columnist

A recession by any other name smells just as bad.

The debate in Washington, D.C., is not what to do about America’s shrinking economy, but what to call it. Is it a recession? Is it stagflation?

Is it “one of the strongest economies in American history?” Seriously, some people are saying that.

The debate over the term “recession” kicked off when observers noted a recent White House blog post discussing the question in highly technical terms. The blog assured concerned Americans that “trends in the data through the first half of this year used to determine a recession are not indicating a downturn.” That’s good to know.

GDP has declined for 2 consecutive quarters

However, this sparked accusations that the Biden team was trying to redefine recession to escape the consequences of two consecutive quarters of gross domestic product decline, which became official Thursday when the Commerce Department announced that the American economy shrank 0.9% between April and June.

Google trends shows "are we in a recession" heating up. It is a worthy debate topic for activists, partisans, pundits and assorted eggheads. Have at it. But whatever the Biden team’s preferred definition of recession is, they can’t make a silk purse out of a shrinking economy.

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A recession is defined as much by politics as by economics. If you want to know whether the economy is healthy, ask the American people. They are on the front lines, they pay the inflated prices, they see the higher interest rates, they suffer the decline in real income. And they are not happy about it.

According to a new CNN poll, 64% say yes, the country is in a recession. This includes 56% of Democrats. Are they wrong?

In general, about two-thirds of voters disapprove of President Joe Biden’s economic record. Three-quarters say the country is on the wrong track.

The president’s approval rating is almost 2 percentage points below where Donald Trump’s was at this point in his presidency (when GDP was growing at 4.1% and inflation was rising 2.9%). People are worried, and telling them things are peachy won’t cut it.

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Politicians rarely prosper by arguing with the electorate, especially over bread-and-butter issues. Once people are convinced the economy is faltering, once they experience hardship, they resent being told otherwise.

This can be true despite the numbers. During the 1992 election season, President Bill Clinton’s campaign deftly kept recession rhetoric going (“It’s the economy, stupid”) even after six straight quarters of GDP growth. The economy was improving, but people were still uneasy.

The Biden administration has been accused of trying to redefine recession to escape the consequences of two consecutive quarters of GDP decline, which became official Thursday when the Commerce Department announced that the American economy shrank 0.9% between April and June.

When the George H.W. Bush White House trumpeted the brisk 2.7% GDP increase in the fall of 1992, Democratic National Committee Chair Ron Brown dismissed it as "another example of a failed president grasping at straws." And people believed it, or at least enough to elect Clinton.

White House blames the media for its bad poll numbers

The Biden White House blames the news media for the bad poll numbers, saying reporters ignore economic good news stories to focus on the negative narratives. The Muck Rack news trends index shows that articles on both inflation and recession have increased by a factor of 10 or more in the past year.

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A Washington Post opinion piece echoing Biden’s complaint noted that “as high inflation became entrenched, the media had a perpetual issue to ding the president on.”

True, but inflation is a legitimate news story, and a matter of grave public concern that the president persistently downplayed even as it rose to record levels.

If inflation continues to spiral, expect more dings. Bad press simply comes with the turf, even in good times. A 1988 study of economic reporting during the Reagan administration found that as the 1982 recession ended and unprecedented peacetime expansion kicked off, stories on the economy grew both fewer and more negative. But dour reporting hardly mattered; the Gipper won 49 states in 1984 at the height of Reaganomics.

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The White House cannot win a debate over what to call the recession that most people believe we are in. Even if they win on points, they lose by keeping the issue alive in a way that hurts the president. It makes the White House look pedantic, elitist and disconnected from the concerns of most Americans. It also cedes the political space to those who present positive solutions to our economic woes.

Politicians who acknowledge the public’s concerns and try to assuage them will fare better in November than those who deny that problems exist. Call it what you will.

James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and author of "This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive," is dean of Academic Affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins