Democrats are flipping on the economy because their economic message is flopping. They have completely reversed course, from saying the economy is bad and it’s Trump’s fault, to claiming it is good and it’s Obama’s doing. They have been forced into this flip-flop because Americans say they like today’s economy and because Democrats’ leftwing base increasingly repudiates the country’s economic principles.
A recent Gallup poll shows how tone-deaf Democrats have been with their economic negativity. Sixty-three percent of Americans rate current economic conditions as good or excellent; only nine percent rate them as poor. By almost 2-1 (61 percent to 31 percent), Americans say the economy is getting better, not worse. Finally, Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index of 41 is just short of the previous high (44) reached in 2000.
Such high ratings left Democrats untenably claiming today’s economy is bad. It has forced them back to where they were a decade ago.
Ten years ago, and throughout Obama’s first term, they argued that the economy’s subpar performance was President Bush’s fault. Despite the financial crisis’s plunge setting up the potential for real recovery (the economy’s reduced base enabling a rebound to look proportionally larger), it never came, and Obama’s economy continued to bump along the bottom. The most Obama could claim was to have stopped its descent, not that he had restored it.
With Obama unable to restore the economy, the next effort was to redefine it. Subpar economic performance became “the new normal.” If Obama could not fix it with his progressive policies, it was deemed not fixable, and that had to become acceptable.
Of course, President Trump’s victory made “the new normal” refutable. Almost as soon as he took office, the economy took off. Confounded, Democrats applied their criticism of his tax cut – which they claimed was “only for the rich” – to his economy too. They cited any construct to validate their critique — stock buybacks, perceived lack of investment, Wall Street gains. In short, they proclaimed the Trump economy undemocratic.
The problem is that Americans do not see it that way. So, Democrats must now backtrack: The economy is good, and it is Obama’s. On February 17, Obama tweeted “I signed the Recovery Act, paving the way for more than a decade of economic growth…” Democrats have come full-circle: Once again, the present economy is due to the past administration.
Democrats are always arguing on the wrong side of the economy, and of history. As their 2020 campaign lurches further left, they increasingly face the reality that their party will repudiate not just today’s economic performance but America’s economic principles. By explicitly seeking to tie today’s economy back to Obama, they implicitly also seek to reaffirm their attachment to those traditional principles. Their subliminal logic runs thusly: If today’s economy is Obama’s, and he was mainstream, then the party can be trusted not too veer too far.
Both Democratic efforts are tough sells. For eight years, there was no evidence of today’s economy in Obama’s presidency. And for all their reassurance, there is no evidence that their candidates’ current leftist rhetoric will be tempered in office.
Yet Democrats have little alternative but to try to make an economic pivot. Strong economies re-elect presidents. Since 1916, elected incumbents are 11-3 when seeking a second presidential term. Each of the three losers – Hoover, Carter and Bush I – had negative annual GDP growth within a year of their election.
Today’s economy is strong, and Americans recognize it. Notwithstanding the coronavirus crisis roiling the markets this week, this is unlikely to change before Election Day. Therefore, Democrats cannot let Trump own it.
Worse, Democrats are flirting with siding with socialism over capitalism. If Americans are likely to attach themselves to President Trump’s re-election because of today’s economy, how much likelier are they to do so if Democrats also make him the default defender of America’s economic principles?
Trying to claim Trump’s economy is Obama’s is a tough argument. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and it is the only argument they have to address both of their economic problems.
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 through 2000.