The pandemic did not produce the predominant headwinds that changed the course of the country

The choice between former Vice President Biden and President Trump seemed to be a choice between either addressing the ongoing coronavirus outbreak or the economy. Indeed, exit polls show that voters most concerned about the pandemic voted for Biden by a 68 point margin and voters most concerned about the economy voted for Trump by a 65 point margin.

With the pandemic looming large changing nearly every aspect of our lives and as cases rose to their highest levels since the pandemic began leading up to the election, many predicted large wins for Biden. The large margin of victory for Biden that many predicted did not happen. Biden lost Florida and flipped key states by slim margins. Exit polls suggest that the pandemic was the number one issue for only 17 percent of voters.

Among five issues, the economy was the most important issue for the largest share of voters at 35 percent. Yet, the two are not mutually exclusive. Data from Opportunity Insights show that consumer spending began its freefall as the U.S. announced its first COVID-19 case. Consumer confidence wanes as coronavirus spreads. Thus, economists suggest that we should not expect a full economic recovery until after pandemic has passed.

Biden focused more on effectively addressing the pandemic while President Trump focused on economic recovery by getting “husbands back to work”. Yet, it is women who have experienced the most severe effects of this pandemic-induced recession with 4 times more women than men dropping out of the workforce recently. Female labor force participation rates have dropped 2 percent. Women dominate the high people-skill occupations that have been lost to a virus spread by people. Fewer high people-skill workers in the economy will lengthen the time to recovery and will stall wage growth for those who remain in the workforce. In today’s economy, America will not be able to recover without the skills and abilities and experiences that women bring to the workforce. An August survey of economists by the National Association for Business Economics showed that a majority (62 percent) of economists believed that Biden would do a better job promoting economic growth, in stark contrast to the voters most concerned about the economy.

But economic growth is no longer broadly shared by all Americans. The gains from economic growth increasingly go to the richest Americans and aggregate wealth continues to decline for middle income and lower income households. Long-run economic trends that promote aggregate growth have not benefited many Americans especially in places acutely affected by outsourcing and automation. The largest swings toward the republicans in 2016 happened in the Midwest – in areas that have historically relied on manufacturing, many of them rural with no other industries waiting in the wings. The long-term economic realities of the inequality associated with technological change and globalization have yet to be addressed in any meaningful way. Yet, policies that fight against these economic headwinds are unlikely to be successful and have a significant opportunity cost of diverting funds away from policies that would instead help everyone to adapt to the economic headwinds.

Health experts suggest that the pandemic will be over sometime in late 2021, which means that, less than a quarter of the next presidential term will be marked by the pandemic. That still leaves at least three more years for the next president to address the other concerns of American citizens. The pandemic is a short-term problem compared to larger long-term issues that have plagued many Americans – both economic inequality and racial inequality.

Exit polls show that among five issues, racial inequality mattered most for 20 percent of voters (a higher share than the pandemic and second only to the economy). The voters most concerned about racial inequality voted for Biden by an 83-point margin. A significant portion of voters want a social recovery that addresses the long-run systemic issues facing minorities and an economic recovery that addresses inequalities in our economic system. And the two are not mutually exclusive.