The economy: Trump's greatest asset, Democrats' greatest liability

The economy: Trump's greatest asset, Democrats' greatest liability
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Democrats must approach President TrumpDonald John TrumpMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Judge orders Democrats to give notice if they request Trump's NY tax returns Trump's doctor issues letter addressing 'speculation' about visit to Walter Reed MORE’s economy the way porcupines approach romance: Very carefully. They must attack it, but their attacks risk making them more vulnerable. Yet, even if they try to ignore it, they know it will be turned against them. Their predicament goes beyond being “damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t,” to “damned if I know.”

History shows no issue works like a good economy when it comes to an incumbent president’s reelection. Over the last century, elected presidents seeking a second term are 11-3. Of the three elected incumbents who lost reelection — Hoover, Carter and George H.W. Bush — the economy suffered negative annual growth within a year of that election. 

If history is insufficient evidence, then current events should persuade. In presidential bellwether Ohio, a recent Zogby poll of likely voters vouches for its importance. A plurality of 24 percent said the economy would be the most important issue in 2020 — and that Trump was more trusted to grow the economy than “Democratic leaders” at 49 percent to 34 percent. 

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It is no surprise the economy is so politically potent. It is the most pervasive one, affecting everyone. It is also the most determinant of most people’s quality of life. 

Further, it plays to Republicans’ generic strength and Trump’s specific one as a successful businessman. Without an answer for it, Democrats are in trouble next year. Their problem is finding an approach that works. 

Democrats cannot disparage Trump’s economy. Doing so will look like sour grapes. Worse, it will open them up to a comparison with Obama’s, which was worse. Just looking at GDP alone, during Obama’s first 10 quarters, the economy averaged growth of just 1.3 percent. Even in Obama’s last 10 quarters it averaged just 2.3 percent. Over Trump’s first t10 quarters, the economy has averaged 2.6 percent growth. 

Any evidence Democrats use for disparaging the economy will also betray their rhetoric of championing for the average American. Demeaning wage gains, which to most Americans look pretty good — especially in comparison to the previous years — denigrates those receiving them and labels the detractors as elitist. 

Further, the most pronounced means for saying the economy is in trouble — Wall Street indices — only reinforces the elitist image. Main Street’s bread and butter indicators favor Trump. 

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In December 2016, 152.1 million Americans were employed, 7.5 million unemployed (4.7 percent rate) and the labor force participation rate was 62.7 percent. September’s jobs report showed 158.3 million employed, 6.2 million more), 5.8 million unemployed (3.5 percent rate and 1.7 million less) and a labor force participation rate of 63.2 percent (0.6 percent higher). 

Democrats also cannot appear to be cheering against the economy. Such an appearance of rank political opportunism is bad under any circumstances. It would be especially so next year when Democrats’ nominee is likely to advocate the greatest political challenge to what have been America’s most fundamental economic tenets. Even if not defending explicitly the adjective of “socialism,” Democrats’ nominee likely will implicitly have to defend against the charge. 

Finally, Democrats cannot count on the economy continuing with only modest growth. Underlying economic fundamentals remain strong. Additionally, Trump has many levers at his disposal, a primary one being trade policy. 

The president’s unilateral ability to negotiate trade deals could strengthen the economy appreciably. Nowhere is this proven truer than with China. Even the Friday announcement of a smaller than originally intended China deal — and still pending negotiations over the details — delivered a substantial boost to the markets. A final deal could do the same to the economy at large. It could also help calm markets that have been the daily registers of uncertainty.

Like the porcupines, Democrats find themselves in a very sticky economic situation. The economy is Trump’s greatest asset, which would make it the Democrats’ greatest liability — even if they were not in danger of making it greater still. They must somehow get America to believe the arguments of Democrats’ nominee instead of the evidence of their own eyes. 

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.