Would an economic ‘Trump slump’ doom his re-election?

In this Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019, file photo trader Andrew Silverman works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The threat of a recession doesn’t seem so remote anymore, and stocks sank Wednesday after the bond market threw up one of its last remaining warning flags on the economy’s health. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

In this Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019, file photo trader Andrew Silverman works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The threat of a recession doesn’t seem so remote anymore, and stocks sank Wednesday after the bond market threw up one of its last remaining warning flags on the economy’s health. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

The last three incumbent presidents to lose their reelection bids — Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992 — were fatally burdened by a sluggish or recessionary economy. Bear that in mind while Donald Trump seeks a second term amidst mounting evidence of an economic slowdown that the tariff warrior is making worse.

It’s noteworthy that a new national poll is reporting, for the first time in the Trump era, that a plurality of registered voters (37 percent) believe the economy is getting worse, not better (31 percent). The pessimistic camp is 14 points larger than it was in June, thanks largely to the climate of uncertainty triggered by Trump’s tit-for-tat tariff fight with China, which is threatening to raise consumer prices and is already making it tougher for businesses to map their futures. Maybe this explains why Trump has seemed extra wacky these past few weeks; he appears to understand that if he can’t tout the economy in 2020, he may well be toast.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that a sliding economy will doom him; it’s possible that the old rule — a sitting presidents gets credit for a bullish economy and blame for a bad one — no longer apply, just as so many traditional political metrics have been junked. But he seems to take the old rule seriously, because he’s already trying to shift the blame to…guess who?

“The Fake News LameStream Media is doing everything possible (to) ‘create’ a U.S. recession.”

Well, that seems a tad unfair — given the fact that the media is merely doing its job, quoting a wide range of experts such as:

Diane Swonk, chief economist of the Grant Thornton international accounting firm, who says: “We’re losing momentum…The trade effects are slowing through the economy…They snowball over time.”

And Torsten Slok, chief economist at Deutsche Bank Securities: “The trade war is weighing on manufacturing.”

And Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics: “Unless the president finds a way to stand down on the trade war, he will have an economic hurricane to overcome as he runs for reelection.”

And Thomas Collamore, former executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: “The uncertainty created by additional tariffs or threats of more is causing business to pause and sit on their hands.”

And the purchase managers at the Institute for Supply Management, which reported last Tuesday that U.S. manufacturing contracted in August for the first time in three years; and that, thanks to the uncertainty sowed by the trade war, export orders fell to the lowest level since the depths of the Great Recession in early 2009.

And the more than 160 business groups that signed a late-August letter: “Tariffs are taxes that cost American jobs and hurt consumers, creating a problem for the entire U.S. economy.”

And Michael Steel, a former high-ranking Republican aide on Capitol Hill, who says: “Right now it feels like (Trump and his people) are riding a rubber ducky into alligator-infested waters.”

Trump is also trying to blame the current climate on “badly run and weak companies,” but companies contend that the uncertainty sowed by his trade war is wreaking havoc with their decision-making. Should they dump their Chinese suppliers, as Trump recently “hereby ordered” them to do? Should they plan to raise retail prices and forego new hiring, as a hedge against more uncertainty? As the CEO of a toy-making firm recently told CNBC, “As soon as…we start to move, (Trump) is going to put a target on somebody else’s back, and where do we go from there?”

It’s impossible right now to determine whether, or to what extent, this uncertainty will resonate with the electorate — if the past is prologue, the status of the economy in the second quarter of 2020 is likely to be crucial — but it’s safe to say that Trump has little margin for error. Despite the fact that most Americans have generally viewed the economy as strong during his tempestuous tenure, he has never scored 50 percent approval (the only president, in the history of polling, never to inhabit positive territory). Without a good economy, what else can he offer?

On the other hand, the unprecedented polarization in the electorate probably guarantees that Trump’s base will stay loyal no matter what. Even if some of his loyalists are suffering the financial effects of his tariff war, they’ll likely follow Trump’s lead — blaming the media, fearing that the “socialist” Democrats will make things worse. In the words of Rachel Bitecofer, an election expert who accurately predicted the size of the 2018 Democratic midterm wave, “Keep in mind, Trump controls his own information environment, and it’s not only Republicans who see it.”

But it falls to the Democrats to craft a persuasive response. They’ve tiptoed around the economic issue, fearful (they’re always fearful) that they’ll be accused of seeking political gain by “rooting” for a recession. The jobless rate is also low, so it’s not political ammo. And they’re busy dueling with each other over whether capitalism should be tweaked (Joe Biden) or systemically reformed (Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders).

However, if the climate of uncertainty becomes toxic and the trade war bites hard at home, Democrats will need to build on what Biden said this weekend in New Hampshire: Trump is becoming “more erratic…He inherited a pretty good economy from Barack Obama, just like he inherited everything in his life.” The economy meets the character issue. It’s a start.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.