“It’s the economy, stupid,” strategist James Carville famously instructed campaign workers in Bill Clinton’s 1992 run against President George H.W. Bush. The president was blamed for a mild recession and lost the election.
It wasn’t so simple. The election was scrambled by H. Ross Perot Jr., the folksy Texas billionaire with charts, who won the most votes ever by a third-party candidate. Bush alienated GOP hard-liners by breaking his “read my lips” pledge and agreeing to a tax increase. Bush’s savvy management of the end of the Cold War and his success in the Gulf War couldn’t save him.
But a growing economy usually helps the incumbent. Donald Trump certainly banked on that — the expansion that started in June 2009 continued into the first three years of his presidency. (In total, Obama and Trump presided over the longest expansion in U.S. history).
Then came the pandemic, which sent unemployment to depths not seen since the Great Depression. Although the economy has bounced back a bit, it remains sickly (outside of the stock market). The price tag for the virus is estimated at $16 trillion.
That makes Trump vulnerable to Democratic challenger Joe Biden, not only for a host of norm-breaking actions and controversies but for what a few months ago seemed the president’s biggest strength: the economy. Here, Biden offers voters a sharp alternative.
For example, Biden would raise taxes on those making more than $400,000, while restoring the Obama-era top tax rate of 39.6% (from Trump’s 37%). He would roll back Trump’s corporate tax cut. The nonpartisan Penn Wharton Budget Model estimates these and other Biden tax tweaks would add $3.4 trillion in additional revenue from 2021 to 2030.
Also, Biden proposes spending big on infrastructure, health care and education. No wonder Biden’s plan has been favorably received by Moody’s Analytics as well as Goldman Sachs and others on Wall Street.
Goldman stated, “A Biden win, especially in a ‘blue wave,’ would likely mean greater fiscal stimulus, more cyclical upside, less trade policy risk. … Earlier vaccine availability would have directionally similar effects, in our view.”
Trump, meanwhile, has shown little interest in a new economic platform, largely confining himself in this area to criticizing Biden’s plan or bragging on the pre-pandemic economy.
In 2016, he ran on “Make America Great Again,” promising to return manufacturing jobs, increase coal employment, get tough on China and other planks of economic nationalism.
In office, this mostly meant typical Republican fare: tax cuts largely for the wealthy, rolling back environmental protections, opening public lands to fossil-fuel drilling and ignoring climate change (indeed, pulling out of the Paris Accords). But Trump delivered without compromise (and people ask why so many Republicans support him).
However, he also challenged GOP post-World War II orthodoxy on trade.
Bullying Mexico and Canada (and imposing tariffs on Ottawa), Trump forced a remaking of NAFTA to become his USMCA. (It’s worth noting that the idea of NAFTA originated with the Reagan administration). While the new version included some needed modernization, it antagonized allies and left months of uncertainty over the future of the $1.2 trillion trade bloc.
Bullying allies was a hallmark of Trump’s “America First” thrust. The administration imposed tariffs on the European Union while also questioning the value of NATO.
Trump also carried out a campaign promise to levy tariffs against China, leading to a tit-for-tat trade war. Tariffs, of course, are taxes on importers, be they businesses or consumers. As a result, U.S.-China trade fell.
It was especially felt in trade-dependent states such as Washington, whose No. 1 merchandise export customer is China. Exports fell from $20.7 billion in 2014 to less than $9 billion this past year.
Far from getting Beijing to cave, Trump’s trade war gave ammunition to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own economic nationalism. Tensions between the world’s two largest economies continued rising, to the point that scholars talk about a new Cold War.
Manufacturing failed to return strongly, leaving at least some 2016 supporters disillusioned.
Stunts such as jawboning heating and air-conditioning company Carrier to keep jobs in Indiana, even before he was sworn in, proved disappointing in the long run. Trump bragged about a Foxconn plant in Wisconsin that would create 13,000 jobs. The pledge failed so badly that the state withdrew tax credits.
Trump’s boasted about “his” job creation, when in reality an average 2.2 million were created annually during his first three years vs. 2.6 million per year created during President Barack Obama’s second term. Trump promised to grow the economy by 4% a year. In fact it never increased by more than 2.9%.
And most of this was before COVID-19.
Trump incessantly calls it the “China virus,” implying it was done to harm his strong economy. He pushed governors to reopen as quickly as possible, and when they didn’t he blamed them for the recession.
Unfortunately for the president, Bob Woodward’s new book reveals that Trump knew how dangerous the pandemic was by Jan. 28 and deliberately misled the American people about its seriousness.
“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump said in a Feb. 7 call to Woodward. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus. … This is deadly stuff.”
Presidents don’t have absolute control over the economy and sometimes, as with H.W. Bush, fate or the business cycle deals them a bad hand. A recession was due, although likely a mild one. But Trump’s malpractice on the pandemic made this downturn much worse, much more deadly.
No wonder the economy ranked first among election issues in an August poll by the Pew Research Center.
And yet, according to a poll on the site FiveThirtyEight, Trump’s most recent approval rating was 43.4%, in line with his standing throughout most of his presidency. How can that be?
If anything, it shows that many, perhaps most, Trump supporters weren’t motivated by the economy. Instead, issues such as immigration, maintaining a white majority, culture-war issues and, lately, “law and order” animate his base. No wonder he could walk away from a desperately needed stimulus — a win for him — without worry.
This is one of the most important elections in American history. Lacking a Biden landslide, it could be tied up for months. Trump himself has refused to pledge that he will accept the results if he loses. In a country more divided than at any time since the eve of the Civil War, anything is possible. No wonder Barton Gellman wrote an article in The Atlantic about potential chaos headlined, “The Election That Could Break America.”
But it won’t be about the economy.