The Memo: Trump's second-term chances fade
The Memo: Trump raises stakes on economy
President Trump is upping the stakes in his bet that the economy can deliver him a second term.
On Tuesday morning, the Trump campaign announced it was boosting TV advertising spending by "nearly 50 percent" with commercials focused on the economy.
In one national ad, the campaign claims that "American workers paid the price" for trade deals supported by Trump's Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. In a state-level commercial, a woman identified only as "Kim" claims that "Joe Biden could never handle the economy after COVID. There's no way. It would be a disaster."
The Trump campaign referred to the economy as "the defining issue of the race" in a press release announcing the new ad buy.
On the face of it, Trump faces formidable obstacles in making the economy an electoral asset.
The unemployment rate in August was 8.4 percent, way up from 3.5 percent in February, before the pandemic began to bite. The nation is struggling with the impact of shutdowns that have hit the owners and employees of small businesses especially hard.
Trump and his allies believe that persuadable voters in the ideological center-ground can be won over by two arguments: firstly, that the pandemic is such a freak occurrence that Trump should not be held culpable for its economic effects; and secondly, that the president would be better able to drive a recovery than Biden.
"Trump believes in the velocity of money - that getting money into the hands of many people and turning it over as many times as possible is what makes the economy great," said Brad Blakeman, a veteran of former President George W. Bush's White House staff and a Trump supporter.
"He did that for 3 1/2 years and unfortunately COVID was a huge setback," Blakeman added. "But I believe voters will think, 'I would trust him to do what he did before, again, more than the Biden philosophy where the government taxes the rich and decides what to do with the money."
It's an argument Democrats push back against forcefully.
They insist that Trump's management of the economy cannot be separated from his mishandling of the pandemic. Recent revelations from a new book by Bob Woodward demonstrate that Trump privately knew the coronavirus was a graver threat than he admitted in public.
To Democrats and other critics, that shows how negligent Trump was in the early stages of the pandemic's spread - a failure, they say, that has had severe consequences on both public health and the economy.
Still, there is some evidence that voters do not necessarily see the two issues as quite so inextricably linked.
Trump's handling of the economy almost always polls as his best issue, while his handling of the coronavirus is one of his worst.
An Economist/YouGov poll released last week indicated that 46 percent of adults approved of Trump's handling of the economy, with 43 percent disapproving. By contrast, 56 percent said they were uneasy about his ability to deal with the coronavirus, while just 38 percent said they were confident.
An edge on the economy is vital in any presidential election. It tends to be superseded as the primary issue only if the nation is enmeshed in a large-scale war.
The coronavirus may have altered that equation, however. The pandemic has some parallels to wartime in the way that it has impacted so many voters' lives and exacted a huge toll from the nation.
COVID-19 has infected more than 6.5 million people in the U.S. and almost 200,000 have been killed. The economic and cultural life of the nation has been fundamentally shaken up.
"The attention the coronavirus epidemic gets is so enormous that people are not really so focused on the economy as you would think," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist and ad-maker based in Los Angeles.
The Trump team's focus on the economy is borne of necessity. The president has lagged Biden in national polls throughout the campaign, his personality turns off more voters than it engages and he is getting short on time to change the trajectory of the race.
Attempts by Trump to move things in his direction, via his focus on what he terms "law and order" or in the shape of the recent Republican National Convention, do not appear to have moved the needle appreciably. The economy may be his best and last chance to do so.
Some Democrats believe Biden could do a better job in countering Trump's push on the economy.
The Democratic nominee has a raft of plans, including widespread infrastructure spending, that his campaign wraps in the slogan of "Build Back Better." The question is whether his plans have really broken through to undecided voters.
"Biden has got to talk about the economy, he has to put increasing pressure on Trump about the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs, many of whom won't get them back," said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin. "Biden has to communicate more directly and clearly. He is not ignoring the issue - but this is what the campaign is for, that's what the debates are for."
The battle over the economy will likely come down to advertising air wars and the three presidential debates, the first of which is scheduled for Sept. 29.
It may be Trump's best card. But Democrats remain confident.
The president's advantage on the economy is hardly overwhelming, they note - and there are other grave domestic issues vying for voters' attention.
"If this is Trump's only strength - and I think it pretty much is - it is a very modest strength," said Maslin. "Two-thirds of the people think the country is headed down the wrong track, and he is much weaker on the pandemic and social unrest."
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump's presidency.