By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – President Donald Trump and his allies have started a new drumbeat.
Confronted with polling that shows him losing in 2020 to just about every Democratic Party White House hopeful but U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts – and Trump is ahead of her by just a single percentage point – the president’s team has started arguing that America’s economic strength makes his re-election inevitable.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
If the economy is strong, they argue, the party in power ends up retaining its hold.
It isn’t that simple.
If it were that simple, Hillary Clinton would have been elected president in 2016. She was the heir to a president who had overseen one of the longest periods of economic recovery in American history.
But that didn’t stop Trump from eking out a narrow victory.
Similarly, if a surging economy were the only driver toward political success, Americans wouldn’t have increased Democrats’ popular-vote majority from just under 3 million in 2016 to roughly 10 million in the 2018 congressional elections.
But they did.
Even more to the point, if presiding over an expanding economy were a guarantee of political popularity, Donald Trump’s public approval wouldn’t linger around 40 percent while the stock market booms and unemployment numbers shrink.
But it does.
That’s because both the economic considerations and the political calculations demanded of this era are more complex than the president or his devotees would like to acknowledge.
They point, for example, to the fact that unemployment rates have dropped on his watch and that wages slowly, at an almost glacial pace, have begun to climb. This is the result of Trump’s mastery of economic forces.
Not really, and the voters know that.
Economists have predicted for some time that we will face a global labor shortage. We’re entering that period now, which is why just about every business leader I talk with talks about the difficulty of finding qualified employees. The search for talent will drive economic competition around the world for the coming generation.
We don’t have enough bodies to fill the jobs available.
That means just about anyone occupying the Oval Office – Republican, Democrat or a trained chimp – will be able to boast about low unemployment rates.
But that isn’t the challenge.
The challenge over the next 20 years is twofold. It will involve making sure that we have a workforce that has been trained (and often retrained) to fill the jobs that need to be done and that the people who do that work are paid fairly for their labor.
That’s where the Trump-is-inevitable argument falls apart.
The polls show that most Americans do believe the economy is strong.
But those same polls also show that most Americans feel that the benefits of that strong economy have not been shared equitably. Specifically, the polls reveal that Americans believe that the game is rigged to help the wealthy and other entrenched interests.
The president has done nothing to persuade them otherwise.
The tax cut that was perhaps the sole public policy achievement of his first two years in office disproportionately favored the yacht and private jet class. Even the crumbs that were thrown to middle- and lower-class earners are set to sunset, while the largesse offered to the wealthy is scheduled to remain in place forever.
The Trumpian obsession with building a wall along America’s southern border also may be costing the president in the polls.
Because his rhetoric focuses on trying to protect U.S. jobs that have vanished, it prevents him from pivoting to talk about the new jobs that either are emerging or already here. Because he’s vowed to turn back the clock, he cannot urge his followers to make any sacrifices or even accommodations to prepare for the future.
This is a trap of Donald Trump’s own making, but it has him tightly snared.
The reason the expanding economy isn’t helping him is because most Americans don’t see that economy helping them.
Until they do, this president will continue to struggle.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.