Trump slumps despite economic bump.
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
The last time American consumers were this confident, September 11 was just a random date on the calendar. And it isn’t hard to see U.S. workers are feeling upbeat. In July, there were 659,000 more job openings than Americans looking for jobs. In August, the U.S. saw its best month of nominal wage growth in nine years. The percentage of Americans involuntarily stuck in part-time employment is smaller than it’s been for a decade. Unemployment is hovering near mid-century lows.
By all appearances, the Gods of the Macroeconomy are doing all they can to save the GOP’s congressional majorities. And they’re failing, miserably.
In recent weeks, as the “Trump economy” was reaching new heights, Donald Trump’s approval rating dipped below 40 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s poll of polls for the first time since late February. Eight of the last eight live-interview surveys have found the president’s approval rating to be in decline. Meanwhile, Democrats have opened up a near-double-digit lead in the generic congressional ballot.
To be sure, the decline in Trump’s standing has been small. And there’s little reason to believe that the president’s latest polling slump will prove more durable than his previous ones. Overall, the American people’s assessment of their president has been remarkably steady throughout the Trump era. Odds are that the recent decline is a fleeting reaction to John McCain’s funeral, or ephemeral headlines about White House dysfunction, or else, just a bit of statistical noise.
But that still wouldn’t be good news for Trump or his party. The fact that the president’s approval rating has held steady (which is to say, has held steadily low) — amid improving economic conditions — suggests that the economy won’t save the GOP this November, no matter how good the good times get.
The White House clearly hopes otherwise. This week, the chair of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, Kevin Hassett, treated the press corps to a formal, chart-laden argument for why the current president deserves credit for the (relative) prosperity he’s presided over. Predictably, Hassett’s presentation was full of dubious premises, and misleading graphs. Nevertheless, as Matt Yglesias notes, Trump does deserve a modicum of credit for the economy’s present state: By increasing spending while cutting taxes, the president enacted a fiscal stimulus, which likely boosted short-term growth and tightened labor markets.
Of course, there’s no reason why this stimulus had to take the form of massive tax cuts for the wealthy and big increases in military spending. In fact, a couple trillion dollars in wage subsidies for the working class would have almost certainly produced bigger macroeconomic returns, as ordinary Americans spend far more of their disposable income than Robert Mercer does. Just because Trump’s policies have produced improvements in short-term economic performance does not mean that they were good policies.
And many voters appreciate this distinction. A CNN/SSRS poll released Monday found that 69 percent of American voters think the economy is “good” — but only 49 percent approve of the way Trump is managing the economy. And even voters who believe the economy is doing well — and credit Trump for that fact — don’t necessarily support the president or his party. Only 36 percent of the poll’s respondents approved of Trump’s overall job performance, down from 42 percent in August. A separate Washington Post-ABC News poll documents the same phenomenon: While most voters told that survey that the economy was doing well, nearly half of those who were upbeat about the economy still voiced opposition to the president. And when asked whether they’d rather have a Democratic Congress “as a check on Trump” — or a Republican one that would “support Trump’s agenda” — 60 percent of voters opted for the former.
None of this means that Trump isn’t benefiting from the strength of today’s economy. Considering that the president has always derived a portion of his support from voters who do not like him, personally, it’s all but certain that his approval rating would be much lower if unemployment were rising, and wages plunging. But current polling does suggest that there are firm limits on how much support the GOP can derive from improving material conditions. American voters simply hate Donald Trump more than they like the tightening labor market. It’s not the economy, stupid.