In an alternate universe, President Donald Trump would be heading into the midterms relentlessly touting his stewardship of a strong economy with results that include historically low unemployment, solid economic growth, sky-high enthusiasm among small businesses and shattered records for job openings.
Instead, the president is repeatedly muddling that message with easily debunked falsehoods or hyperbole about the state of the economy while pressing on with unpopular trade wars that frustrate establishment Republicans and business groups worried about price increases. His undisciplined approach — coupled with his obsessing about the Russia investigation, Hillary Clinton and the 2016 election — is damaging what many Republicans say should have been a political slam dunk for the GOP heading into the fall.
The result is that one of the White House’s most critical projects for the midterm elections — getting Americans to credit Trump and the party with a hot economy — is in danger of failing.
“The economy is the admission ticket for Republicans,” said Josh Holmes, former chief of staff to Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s majority leader. “But it is clearly not the only thing that matters, and in a news cycle increasingly driven by the president, an awful lot of new things are entering the lexicon of everyday Americans.”
Top lawmakers have repeatedly implored Trump, as recently as last week, to stay focused on the economy, but they haven’t found much success with a president who prefers his own method of communicating. And senior administration aides, at this point, find it futile to try to corral Trump, even just urging him to stick to an optimistic economic message that focuses on facts and avoids wild exaggerations. One aide argued they don’t think the press will cover the economy fairly anyway. “We have a ton of good facts and a good story to tell, but he’s not a perfect messenger,” this person said. “And we have a media problem as well.”
Polls show voters rate the economy highly, but approval ratings for both Trump and the GOP remain mired in deeply negative territory. Surveys also show sharp skepticism over Trump’s trade battles with Canada, Mexico, China and Europe. That means a booming economy could be turning into a political bust for the party.
“It’s just harder to drive a sustained message of economic enthusiasm with the shadow of a trade war looming over those efforts,” said Kevin Madden, a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies and spokesman for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. “Too much political capital was left on the field. Small business enthusiasm, coupled with tax reform and regulatory relief, could have yielded broader political benefits heading into a tough mid-term cycle if there was a more focused message.”
Just this week, as the White House rolled out a fresh push to tout the strong economy, Trump tweeted that economic growth was higher than the jobless rate for the first time in 100 years. It was actually the first time in 12 years. And he suggested that if Hillary Clinton had won the White House, the economy would be sharply contracting right now, an assertion not supported by any available facts or mainstream economists.
The claims follow months in which Trump claimed the GOP tax cut was the biggest in history. It wasn’t. And he repeatedly suggested the U.S. economy is now stronger than at any time in history. It isn’t.
White House Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Kevin Hassett, who took to the briefing room on Monday to argue that Trump’s economy is much more than just a continuation of trends that began a decade ago under President Barack Obama, wound up having to explain why Trump tweeted his false claim about GDP and unemployment.
And he came away from the appearance frustrated that the press doesn’t cover Trump’s successes on the economy more positively.
“This is a historically good economy, one of those special moments that we see every now and then. If you don’t agree that there is enough economic data to support this then you are a science denier as much as a denier in any other area,” Hassett said in an interview while traveling in Ireland this week. “The treatment of the president is very hostile. I suppose that if we all became saintly, perfect beings that maybe there is a chance that someone might cover things positively. But it doesn’t look like it to me.”
Inside the White House, part of the problem stems from a long-standing lack of cohesive strategy on messaging and communications — a quandary that Trump tried to solve by bringing on a former Fox News executive, Bill Shine, as deputy chief of staff for communications.
One senior administration official also said that Trump, as a former businessman and not politician, does not always bask in or relish his administration’s successes, or boast about them enough since he’s often so eager to move onto the next thing and does not always realize how hard-fought victories can be in government.
A former administration official said Trump usually zeroes in on touting the economy on days when new economic data comes out, such as jobs or GDP numbers.
His Twitter stream this week, with less than two months until the midterms, has focused on the impending hurricane, a tell-all book by Bob Woodward, the NFL anthem controversy, North Korea, trade with China, Hillary Clinton — and the economy.
Republican congressional leaders continue to believe the economic message is the most potent one heading into the midterms and plan to keep up the drumbeat of that message — especially in swing suburban districts where House seats are in play. Leaders including McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan gently brought that up at a meeting at the White House last week, where much of the discussion centered on the economy, said a person briefed on it.
Would it be terrific if the only thing people cared about was the economy?” Holmes asked. “Yeah. But things like immigration, while not important to everyone, are very important to driving base turnout and focusing on things like that are an important part of the mix.”
Polling also suggests that when the economy is bad, it is by far the top issue on people’s minds. When it’s good, it takes a back seat to other concerns such as health care.
Outside the White House, Trump’s seeming inability to stick to strong economic facts to make his case without resorting to inaccurate superlatives or contrasts to Obama is also frustrating economic conservatives who want the president to stay laser-focused on what he’s done on taxes and regulation rather than fight with a former president, or the Canadians or anyone else.
“As is often the case, the president is his own worst enemy here,” said David Bahnsen, chief investment officer of The Bahnsen Group, a wealth-management firm. “The deregulatory efforts are indeed laudable and pro-growth for us free-enterprise advocates. But how many times has the president talked about 10 percent business investment growth, or capital expenditures. Instead his messaging is that Canada is ripping off Americans. It’s exasperating.”
Polling data show just how challenged Trump is in getting wider credit for the strong economy. A Quinnipiac poll out this week showed 70 percent of Americans rate the economy as “excellent” or “good,” matching an all-time high. But that’s not translating into any higher support for the president.
The same poll shows him with just a 38 percent approval rating. And 60 percent of respondents in the poll said they believe Trump is dishonest, underscoring the potential damage he does when he says untrue things about the economy. Both figures are similar to those in a recent CNN survey that pegged Trump’s approval rating at 36 percent, with just 32 percent describing the president as honest.
Democrats now enjoy a near-double-digit lead in generic ballot surveys asking which party Americans plan to vote for in the fall, suggesting a run of very strong economic data on growth, job openings and confidence are not boosting the GOP’s prospects this fall.
Part of the problem, according to pollsters, is that for many Americans, even a strong economy won’t change their opinions about the president.
“Americans made up their mind pretty quickly about Trump’s presidency and many aspects of the verdict have been negative and strong,” said Karlyn Bowman, who studies polling data for the American Enterprise Institute.
Bowman also noted that while the economy is strong, negative feelings about the U.S. financial system lingering from the 2008 financial crisis and Great Recession persist, further frustrating efforts by the White House to have some of the glow of the economy rub off on the president.
“Given the depths public opinion sank to after the crash and the public’s conviction that our financial system isn’t more secure than it was then, perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that he’s not getting a lot of credit.”