President Donald Trump’s advisers are rattled. Not because the second year of his presidency is about to end with little to show for itself. Or because the Mueller investigation is intensifying and continues to ensnare people close to the president. Or because Trump is historically unpopular, with an approval rating that has never even hit 50 percent. Or even because the Republican Party was just handed a historic defeat in the midterm elections.
On Friday, Politico reported that “Trump’s economic officials are reassuring investors about recent white-knuckle stock market volatility, while Trump’s political advisers are increasingly alarmed that the economy could present a stiff 2020 campaign headwind…. allies acknowledge that his reelection prospects hinge in large part on how Americans judge their economic prospects at the time of the next election.”
This has been the conventional wisdom in American politics for some time: that citizens cast their votes based on their economic well-being. There’s a reason why “It’s the economy, stupid” is one of Washington’s most persistent cliches.
But Trump has defied all sorts of conventional wisdom to date. For starters, he defeated the nominee of the party that oversaw America’s recovery from the Great Recession; by the 2016 election, the economy had been expanding for seven straight years. That trend has continued under Trump—the economy was even historically great last year—and yet, his approval rating has been mired in the low-40s. A recession almost certainly wouldn’t help Trump’s reelection chances, but it seems like an overreaction to pin his political future on whether or not one occurs in the next eighteen months.
There’s limited evidence that a recession would doom Trump. A sitting president hasn’t run for reelection in the midst of a recession since Jimmy Carter in 1980, as CNBC’s John Harwood pointed out on Thursday. Carter, of course, lost in historic fashion, with Ronald Reagan taking 44 of 50 states in the Electoral College. Other recent presidents who saw recessions in their first term—Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, George W. Bush—survived, though those recessions had all ended by election day, Harwood noted.
But there is reason to fear a recession. The economic recovery has been unusually long—the second-longest expansion in U.S. history, after 1991-2001. Last year’s enormous corporate tax cuts provided a shot in the arm for the economy, but its effects are wearing off as warning signs mount. “A strong dollar, weaker growth abroad, mounting corporate debt, a slowdown in housing and the ongoing havoc that tariffs are wreaking on global supply chains are each taking a toll,” wrote Diane Swonk, chief economist for Grant Thornton LLP. “No one knows for sure which straw will break the camel’s back, only that they are piling up.”
Trump would certainly own any recession that occurred in the next few years. His economic protectionism has spooked global markets and damaged relationships with key allies and trading partners. The administration’s weak-dollar policies and financial regulatory rollbacks would also be blamed for making any economic slowdown worse. But being responsible for something and being punished for it politically are two different things.
The economic indicators heading into the 2016 election suggested that Trump should lose. The economy, taken broadly, was doing quite well under Democratic leadership and Hillary Clinton had pledged to largely continue President Barack Obama’s economic policies. Polls suggested that the majority of people felt good about the economy and their place in it. But Trump, who consistently painted a bleak and inaccurate picture of the economy under Obama, prevailed nevertheless.
Of course, Trump won partly by appealing to people who had been left behind by the economic recovery. As the economy has continued to grow, though, Trump’s approval rating has remained in the low 40s. A Quinnipiac poll released late last month revealed that 53 percent of voters approved of Trump’s handling of the economy, but only 41 percent approved of Trump overall. The last few years have revealed that there are partisan correlations on economic polling—Republicans tend to think the economy is doing well when a Republican is in office, and vice versa—but these are still staggering numbers, given the aggregate economic numbers.
A recession, Politico reported, “could be the biggest threat to Trump’s chances at winning a second term, according to interviews with eight current and former senior administration officials and close White House advisers.” What should really trouble those officials and advisers, though, is that Trump hasn’t seen any political benefit for the performance of the economy so far. The real problem facing Trump ahead of 2020 isn’t the economy, stupid. It’s that a clear majority dislikes him, no matter what.