The Memo: Trade war shadows Trump victory lap on economy

The Memo: Trade war shadows Trump victory lap on economy
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President TrumpDonald TrumpMeghan McCain: Democrats 'should give a little credit' to Trump for COVID-19 vaccine Trump testing czar warns lockdowns may be on table if people don't get vaccinated Overnight Health Care: CDC details Massachusetts outbreak that sparked mask update | White House says national vaccine mandate 'not under consideration at this time' MORE and his allies took a victory lap on Friday, as new job numbers showed the overall unemployment rate dropped to an 18-year low, with black unemployment hitting its lowest rate on record.

The economy has expanded at a robust rate throughout Trump’s time in office, and many observers believe it will be the strongest card Republicans can play as they campaign in November’s midterm elections.

Yet the jobs report came at the end of a week that has also seen fears of a trade war rise sharply.


The administration is set to impose tariffs of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum imports, targeting allies who had previously received temporary exemptions on that score. The European Union (EU), Mexico and Canada are all in the administration’s sights.

The EU as well as the other nations have pledged retaliatory tariffs and the rhetoric on the issue is becoming more heated all the time. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the U.S. tariffs “illegal.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told NBC News on Friday that the idea that his nation was a security threat to the U.S. — one of the rationales offered by the administration for the sanctions — was “frankly insulting and unacceptable.”

The stock market seemed to shrug off worries about a possible trade war on Friday, however, with the Dow Jones industrial average rising 219 points, or about 1 percent.

Allies of the president are adamant that the economy will play to the GOP’s advantage going into the midterms, even as the broader environment — and electoral history, which has often shown the president’s party losing seats in first-term midterm elections — looks tough.

“History is against the president but the record is with the president,” said Brad Blakeman, who served in the senior staff in former President George W. Bush’s White House.

Blakeman added that, come November, “people are going to be voting like they typically do — with their pocketbooks. They will be thinking, ‘I may wish Trump did things a little differently, but I can’t argue with success.’ ”

Opinion polls offer mixed messages so far, giving ammunition to Trump supporters and skeptics alike.

The president’s approval ratings are low by historical standards — he was at 43.7 percent approval in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) polling average on Friday afternoon. On the other hand, those approval ratings have ticked up, leaving Trump still underwater, but not nearly so deeply as was once the case.

His net approval rating in the RCP average is now around -9 points. It was around -20 points in mid-December.

Similarly, Democrats hold an advantage in the so-called generic ballot but it, too, has shrunk of late. The GOP has cut the deficit on that question to about 3 points, from 13 points toward the end of last year.

“Why is Trump’s job performance up? Why is the generic ballot question closer? In my opinion, it’s the performance of the economy,” said Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs and polling expert at Franklin & Marshall College.

Democratic strategists don’t dismiss the economic arguments out of hand. But they say it is important not to overstate their importance when dealing with a president as polarizing as Trump. They also contend that anything akin to a trade war could strip away any political advantage Trump has so far wrought.

“If this trade war does in fact happen, and people are hurt by it, they are going to be very upset by it,” said Tad Devine, who worked for Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersAngst grips America's most liberal city Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Democrats say they have the votes to advance .5T budget measure MORE’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign. “They are going to wonder why he is ruining a great economy that he was handed.”

Devine also took issue with the idea that the economy provided a wind at Trump’s back. The same numbers would do that for a more conventional president, but Trump fits no normal template, he asserted.

“It’s a breeze that comes and goes,” he said of the economy. “There is no doubt that he gains advantage because of the economic numbers. But it is not enough to provide cover for the minefields he puts down with voters almost every day. This is a president who takes away focus from good things and puts focus on bad things routinely — that’s his whole M.O.”

Complicating the calculus further, Trump’s moves on tariffs have cut across traditional battle lines. 

They have won approval from Rust Belt Democrats like Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownTop Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure Schumer's moment to transform transit and deepen democracy Democrats ramp up pressure for infrastructure deal amid time crunch MORE (Ohio), even as they have drawn criticism from Washington Republicans. Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Juan Williams: Biden's child tax credit is a game-changer Trump clash ahead: Ron DeSantis positions himself as GOP's future in a direct-mail piece MORE (Wis.) and Sen. Ben SasseBen SasseSasse calls China's Xi a 'coward' after Apple Daily arrest Defunct newspaper's senior editor arrested in Hong Kong Murkowski: Trump has 'threatened to do a lot' to those who stand up to him MORE (Neb.) are among the prominent GOP lawmakers who have raised their voices in opposition.

Meanwhile, for all the economy’s undoubted importance, independent observers cautioned that the universe of persuadable voters when it comes to Trump is unusually small.

At some level, “It’ll still break down to the usual,” said Madonna. “I don’t think it’s going to change the deeply rooted polarization we’re seeing. His base is going to continue to support him and the critics are going to continue to be critics.”

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