Despite Widespread Pain, Economy Remains Strong Selling Point For Trump

Aug 25, 2020
Originally published on August 25, 2020 11:05 am

Almost 30 million people are now collecting unemployment benefits. Yet President Trump still gets relatively high marks for his handling of the economy.

As Republicans focus on "opportunity" at their convention Tuesday, the economy remains one of the president's strongest selling points.

"You see the kind of numbers that we're putting up. They're unbelievable," Trump told supporters in Minnesota last week. "More jobs in the last three months than ever before."

In boasting about the big job gains in May, June and July, Trump conveniently omits the historic job losses in March and April. So far, the U.S. has recovered less than half of the jobs that disappeared this spring.

Ordinarily, a double-digit unemployment rate would be crippling for a president seeking reelection. Consider the price that George H.W. Bush paid in 1992 for what was, in hindsight, a relatively mild recession.

Despite his popularity after winning the first Gulf War, Bush's economic approval rating plummeted to 18%. Although the unemployment rate that year never reached 8%, Bush was sent packing in an election characterized by James Carville's famous phrase, "It's the economy, stupid."

Although the current recession is much deeper, Trump's economic approval rating continues to hover near 50%.

"What's going on is the memory of the economy before the pandemic," says Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

He believes many Americans are still judging Trump by the economy as it was six months ago, before the coronavirus took hold here.

"It was rolling," Ayres recalls. "Unemployment was at historic lows. The economy was in great shape before the pandemic killed it."

Presidential approval ratings in general don't swing up and down as much as they used to. Americans have increasingly sorted themselves into highly polarized camps, reluctant to abandon their own standard-bearer or show even grudging approval for the other side.

Trump may also be getting a pass on the economy because Americans are more concerned with other problems, including race relations and especially the pandemic itself.

"People see COVID as the problem and the economy as a symptom," says Lydia Saad, director of U.S. social research for Gallup. "They're viewing [the economic downturn] sort of like a hurricane. Something that's happened. It's come in. It's created all sorts of havoc. But it's going to go away and things are going to get back to normal."

That's how Mark Schneider sees it. He retired from the Navy after 20 years on nuclear submarines and now runs an advocacy group for nuclear power. Last week, as the S&P 500 stock index was heading for a record high, Schneider tweeted that the Trump economy is "unstoppable." He thinks the recession will soon pass.

"It just feels temporary," Schneider says. "We just kind of paused the economy, as opposed to something mucking the system."

As he drives around his home of Chesapeake in southeastern Virginia, Schneider is confident that a lot of people feel the same way.

"I have yet to see a single Biden sign in my entire city. I haven't seen a bumper sticker. I haven't seen anything Biden. But there's Trump flags flying everywhere," Schneider says. "My forecast is that Trump's going to take this thing in a landslide."

Ayres, the GOP pollster, is not so certain. Despite Trump's solid grade on the economy, it may not be enough to save the president, come November.

"The coronavirus has driven out everything else," Ayres says.

Trump's overall approval rating is considerably lower than his economic marks, weighed down in part by his handling of the pandemic. And until there's a solution for the coronavirus, Ayres says it's going to be difficult for the economy to come roaring back.

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While the president's approval rating remains low, he gets higher marks on the economy than other issues. That's true even now, with almost 30 million people collecting unemployment benefits. As Republicans focus on opportunity at their convention, the economy remains one of the president's strongest selling points. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It takes a certain amount of hutzpah to campaign on your economic record when the unemployment rate is in double digits. But that's exactly what President Trump's been doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Do you see the kind of numbers that we're putting up? They're unbelievable - best job numbers ever - three months - more jobs in the last three months than ever before.

HORSLEY: In boasting about the big job gains in May, June and July, Trump conveniently omits the historic job losses in March and April. So far, the U.S. has recovered less than half the jobs that disappeared this spring.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This morning, new numbers showing the worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: A staggering number and the worst since the Great Depression.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Worse than anything we have seen since the Great Depression.

HORSLEY: Ordinarily, a recession like this would be crippling for a president seeking reelection. Look at what happened to George H.W. Bush back in 1992. Despite his popularity after winning the first Gulf War, Bush's economic approval rating plummeted to just 18% during what was in hindsight a relatively mild recession. Unemployment that year peaked at 7.8%, but that was enough to send the president packing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES CARVILLE: It's the economy, stupid.

HORSLEY: That famous line from Bill Clinton's adviser James Carville doesn't seem to apply to Trump. The president's economic approval rating has slipped since the beginning of the year, but it's still hovering near 50%. So what's going on?

WHIT AYRES: What's going on is the memory of the economy before the pandemic.

HORSLEY: Republican pollster Whit Ayres says many Americans are still judging Trump on the economy as it was six months ago before the coronavirus took hold here.

AYRES: It was rolling. Unemployment was at historic lows. The economy was in great shape before the pandemic killed it.

HORSLEY: Presidential approval ratings in general don't swing up or down as much as they used to, as Americans have become more locked into rigid partisan attitudes. But Gallup's Lydia Saad also suspects many people are giving Trump a pass when it comes to the economic downturn. They're more concerned about the pandemic and see the economy as just a temporary symptom.

LYDIA SAAD: You're viewing this sort of like a hurricane, something that's happened. It's come in. It's created all kinds of havoc. But it's going to go away, and things are going to get back to normal.

HORSLEY: That's how Mark Schneider sees it. He retired from the Navy after 20 years on nuclear submarines and now runs an advocacy group for nuclear power. Last week, as the S&P 500 stock index was heading for a record high, Schneider tweeted that the Trump economy is unstoppable. The recession, he says, will soon pass.

MARK SCHNEIDER: It just feels temporary, right? We just kind of paused the economy as opposed to, you know, something mucking the system.

HORSLEY: As he drives around his home of Chesapeake in southeastern Virginia, Schneider is confident that a lot of people feel the same way.

SCHNEIDER: I have yet to see a single Biden sign in my entire city. I haven't seen a bumper sticker. I haven't seen anything Biden. But there's Trump flags flying everywhere. My forecast is that Trump's going to take this thing in a landslide.

HORSLEY: Ayres, the GOP pollster, is not so certain. Despite Trump's solid grade on the economy, Ayres says it may not be enough to save the president come November.

AYRES: The coronavirus has driven out everything else.

HORSLEY: Trump's overall approval rating is considerably lower than his economic marks, weighed down in part by his handling of the pandemic. Until there's a solution for the coronavirus, Ayres says, it's going to be difficult for the economy to come roaring back.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.