For weeks, President Trump’s campaign rallies have included a promise of a boffo third-quarter economic growth number.
“You had the greatest economy you ever had,” Trump said at a rally in Michigan earlier this month. “And don’t worry, it’s gonna be — you’re gonna have that next year. You’re gonna — wait’ll you see the third-quarter numbers. You’re gonna have great numbers, okay? You’re gonna have great numbers.”
As predicted, the growth numbers were, in fact, great. The economy grew 7.4 percent from July to September, a record. At an annualized rate, the growth was 33 percent — a bigger number and, therefore, one that Trump is more likely to tout.
But, of course, these numbers are misleading. If you earned $50,000 a year, a 7.4 percent increase in your salary in the third quarter would mean you’re now making $53,650. But if your salary had fallen 9 percent in the second quarter, dropping from $50,000 to $45,500, that 7.4 percent increase only gets you to $48,867. You’re still making 2.3 percent less than you were at the outset.
That’s what happened to the economy: a big drop followed by a smaller increase. The 7.4 percent shift is good news given the need to get back to some semblance of normal. But the number itself isn’t proof of a strong economy any more than are the job increases Trump regularly celebrates. When the country loses 22.2 million jobs, gaining 11.4 million back isn’t the accomplishment Trump claims — particularly as the number of permanently unemployed Americans continues to rise.
Trump works with what he’s got, of course. He is going to tout the percentage-point increases in the economy and the millions of jobs regained because he’s not going to be out on the campaign trail lamenting how much worse things were than a year ago. But it highlights a central problem for his reelection bid.
In 2016, Trump’s campaign was centered on capturing the visceral concerns of Americans. Now, the visceral concerns of the electorate work against the incumbent president.
Back then, Trump had a two-part pitch to the country. The first was that the economy wasn’t growing as fast as it could, leaving many people — especially working-class whites — behind. The second was that dangerous foreigners, both terrorists and immigrants, were trying to get into the country and wreak havoc.
By late 2016, Gallup’s monthly effort to track the most important problem facing Americans found that more than 4 in 10 mentioned the economy, terrorism or immigration. Trump was talking about the things people were worried about.
Over the course of Trump’s presidency, though, those concerns changed. In part because the economy continued to improve and, in part, because Trump had convinced his base that it was no longer a problem, concern about the economy plunged. Terrorism faded as a threat. Immigration surged in interest as Trump focused on his campaign pledge to build a wall on the border with Mexico, but it has again since dropped.
Then the coronavirus pandemic happened.
The economy is still a concern, but only about as much as is health care. Both pale next to concern about the pandemic.
This, of course, is not a political strong point for Trump. Polling has continually showed former vice president Joe Biden with a wide advantage on the issue, leading Trump by 18 points in a national CNN poll released on Wednesday. Trump tried for months to put reviving the economy ahead of containing the pandemic, misunderstanding that the former depended on the latter. So now he’s in the unhappy position of trying to elevate modest economic success past the fear caused by the virus.
It’s long been the case that Trump seizes upon abstract numbers as demonstrations of his success, often numbers which he’s cherry-picked for their utility. He regularly hypes growth in stock indexes, for example, despite that metric being both an enormously unhelpful measure of his policies and not being of any use to the nearly half of Americans without any stock. But they are numbers, and they have generally been going up, so he talks about them.
Again, though, there’s nothing visceral about it for most people. In that CNN poll, 40 percent of respondents said that they think the economy is still in a downturn and that things are worsening. Another 3 in 10 said that things have stabilized but not improved. For 7 in 10 Americans, then, things don’t feel like they’re getting better. And it’s unlikely that Trump touting a 7.4 percent increase in the nation’s gross domestic product will convince them that it is.
This is mostly of Trump’s making. His decisions contributed to the virus growing as widespread as it is and, therefore, for the economy being contained in the way that it is. That it bounced back a bit is objectively better than it not having bounced back at all, but as a political argument, it’s shaky. It’s hard to believe that, for many Americans, the improvement in the economy will prompt the same visceral reaction Trump leveraged four years ago.
It is, instead, a different set of adverse physical reactions that are motivating voters.
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