The Memo: Trump gets boost from strong economy

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump knocks BuzzFeed over Cohen report, points to Russia dossier DNC says it was targeted by Russian hackers after fall midterms BuzzFeed stands by Cohen report: Mueller should 'make clear what he's disputing' MORE has been buffeted by historically low approval ratings, a probe into Russian election meddling and innumerable other controversies, but he has enjoyed one consistent bright spot during his first year in office: the economy.

The good news continued on Friday, with the latest official data showing robust growth. Gross domestic product grew at an annualized rate of 3 percent during the third quarter. It was the second quarter in row where growth hit that mark. 

The new figures come as the White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill move into top gear in their efforts to pass tax reform. If they are successful, it will stimulate the economy further, they say. 

At the White House media briefing on Friday, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “The engine of the American economy is revving up, and the president is ready to pour in the rocket fuel through massive tax cuts and reforms.” 

Trump allies say that the president himself prioritizes the economy above all else — in part because of pride in his own business record, but also because he recognizes that the people who put him into office are desperate to see an uptick in their fortunes.

“There is nothing I have seen him more obsessed about, and focused on, than that one issue,” said Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax Media and a personal friend of the president. “Donald Trump lights up when you start talking about things related to bringing jobs back to the United States — especially in states that lost employment during the economic crisis or are in the Rust Belt.”

Politically, conservatives take heart from the growth in the economy, seeing it as an asset that can supersede other concerns about Trump.

“While some of us either obsess about, or look forward to, President Trump’s next tweet, the rest of the country doesn’t really worry about those things,” said conservative strategist Greg Mueller. “They want to know how they are doing: How are their wages growing, is their burden from high taxation lessening?”

But if that is true, it doesn’t explain why the strong performance of the economy hasn’t lifted Trump’s approval ratings.

In the RealClearPolitics polling average, Trump’s job performance won approval from just 39.4 percent of the electorate while 56.1 percent disapproved, as of Friday evening. 

In a Fox News poll released earlier this week, Trump fell to a 38 percent approval rating — the lowest mark in the Fox survey during his time in office. His support was also softening among some groups whom he depends upon, such as white men without college degrees.

Some pollsters argue that Trump is such a deeply unconventional figure that standard factors such as economic performance play a smaller than normal role in determining voters’ opinions of him.

“Typically, a new president with a strong economy would have very good approval numbers,” said Tom Jensen, the director of Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm. “But his personal conduct is squandering the usual goodwill. … If he stopped tweeting, he could get toward a positive approval rating, but the tweeting is sort of overriding everything else.”

It may be the case that some people are so firm in their disapproval of Trump that nothing will change their minds. 

But some experts do acknowledge that Trump's current poll standings — weak though they are — could be even worse, were if not for the good economic news.

Allan Lichtman, an American University professor and one of the few experts to predict a Trump victory over Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump knocks BuzzFeed over Cohen report, points to Russia dossier DNC says it was targeted by Russian hackers after fall midterms Special counsel issues rare statement disputing explosive Cohen report MORE last November, asserted that the president’s poll ratings were “dismal” but argued that “they would be even lower if the economy were to tank.” 

Lichtman noted that former President George W. Bush had poor approval ratings for much of his second term, as the situation in Iraq got worse and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina was widely criticized.

But Bush’s lows became even lower as the economy went off the rails in 2008. Just a week before his successor, President Obama, won the 2008 presidential election, Bush’s approval rating with Gallup stood at just 25 percent.

Lichtman also noted a potentially more positive parallel for Trump: President Reagan’s approval ratings sank at the start of his time in office, alongside a recession that only ended in November 1982, two years after Reagan was elected.  

In Gallup polling, Reagan’s average approval rating during 1982 was just 43 percent, but it shot up to 56 percent by 1984, the year he won reelection by a landslide.

“But Reagan was a sympathetic figure, people were ready to approve of him,” Lichtman argued. "Donald Trump, by his own hand, may have precluded that kind of rise by being such a polarizing figures and so antagonizing to such a huge swath of the country.” 

For the moment, conservatives keep faith that economic gains will yield political dividends in time. 

“Tax reform could supercharge the economy,” Mueller said. “That leaves him and the Republican Party with the potential to go into 2018 with a soaring economy.” 

More generally, Mueller added, “people vote their pocketbooks not their Twitter feeds.”

But that is yet another rule of conventional politics the Trump presidency could put to the test.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.