Kevin Hassett, the cheery chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, had quite a story to tell after being asked by White House press secretary Sarah Sanders to explain “America’s economic winning streak.” He reached beyond standard growth and jobs numbers to invoke a roaring Trump boom, enthusing over capital investment, business optimism, capital goods shipments and the Purchasing Manufacturing Index.
“Sarah can tell you that I’ve been pushing her to let me show these slides for quite a while,” he beamed.
History suggests that such good news ought to translate into a political as well as an economic winning streak for the GOP heading into nettlesome midterm elections and even a glide path for a carefree re-election for President Donald Trump himself.
Yet, something is not quite adding up.
The President has no doubt he can buck the ill omens.
“The Economy is soooo good, perhaps the best in our country’s history (remember, it’s the economy stupid!), that the Democrats are flailing & lying like CRAZY! Phony books, articles and T.V. ‘hits’ like no other pol has had to endure-and they are losing big,” Trump tweeted on Monday.
It would be one thing if the economy were all the president was tweeting about. But the constant whirl of disorder that he drums up often drowns out his arguments about jobs and growth — as became clear as soon as Sanders took over the podium from Hassett. Normalcy evaporated and the acrimony and sheer strangeness of the everyday story of the Trump administration took over.
The character issue
The questions underlined how the turmoil in the White House, most of which can be traced directly to Trump, has led to a crisis of trust and authority in the administration and is muffling GOP attempts to highlight sweeping tax cuts and deregulation as the root of economic strength.
Even the act of holding a briefing appeared to be an attempt to stress normalcy after a wild week of claims of administration dysfunction — though it forced White House aides to wipe off the podium, in a reminder of how rarely it has been used this summer.
In the longer term, the furor facing Sanders underlined one of the central themes of the midterm campaign so far — that the humming economy should have put Trump in a far better position than he is in currently. There is also the related unknown of whether his outbursts and erratic nature are scaring off some voters who otherwise might be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt if they feel good about the economy.
“What is true is that it’s the highest in 10 years. And at some point, somebody probably conveyed it to him, adding a zero to that, and they shouldn’t have done that,” Hassett said.
The tweet might seem like a small thing — given the blizzard of incorrect claims made by Trump. But it plays directly into one of his biggest vulnerabilities, the questions of character that are exacerbated by the constant White House meltdowns.
“It makes the story about the ‘are you honest and trustworthy piece’ and not the ‘how is the economy doing piece’ … We know that is not the ground you want to be on,” said Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster and Washington Examiner columnist on CNN.
“By making it about some fact that is not a fact, it takes it away from his economic message.”
Trump clearly is not yet getting the full credit for healthy jobs and economic growth numbers. The survey shows that 69% of voters describe the nation’s economy as good. But only 49% say they approve of the way Trump is managing the economy.
Inside Trump’s wider drop in approval, his rating among independents tumbled from 47% to 31% since August, the kind of number that could do real damage when voters go to the polls.
The president is also taking on heavy water in other areas of performance.
Only 32% feel Trump is honest and trustworthy, a similar proportion of voters are proud to have him as president and only 30% think he will unite the country.
The drop in Trump’s approval rating in the CNN poll is mirrored in other recent major opinion surveys and therefore should worry Republicans who hope that the strong economy can halt a Democratic charge in November.
That’s because data shows that declines in a president’s approval rating typically respond to a drop in the national vote for his party in the House of Representatives.
Trump’s best hope of avoiding a nightmare scenario of a Democratic House that could cripple his administration may lie in a broadening national appreciation of his economic leadership and a bumper turnout from his loyal grassroots base.
But right now, that kind of success seems to be overshadowed by the president’s failure to make the economy the dominant theme coming out of his chaotic administration.
If he is to confound history in November, that will have to change. Hassett’s upbeat messaging is a good place to start.