For those of us who watch Donald Trump’s various approval numbers with fascination, there’s an anomaly that really stands out at a time when the ranks of the unemployed are swelling with unprecedented and horrific speed. The president’s overall job-approval rating is stable in what you might call a high-mediocre range of the low-to-mid 40s (currently standing at 43 percent at FiveThirtyEight and 44 percent at RealClearPolitics). His approval rating in handling the coronavirus pandemic (according to RealClearPolitics) is virtually identical, as is his personal favorability rating.
But Trump’s approval rating for handling the economy is (on average) above 50 percent, and about where it was before the pandemic. That’s with the worst current economic conditions since the Great Depression. Now, that could mean assessment of Trump’s economic stewardship is a lagging indicator, much like his initially positive ratings for handling the pandemic, which will turn negative when the extent of the recession becomes clear. Or it could mean Americans absolve Trump of any personal responsibility for a pandemic-induced slump (which doesn’t quite accord with the negative assessments of how he’s handled coronavirus). Or perhaps assessments of Trump are so frozen in partisan amber right now that not much of anything in the world of objective reality can move them.
But if you are a Democrat prone to fearing the worst, you might share progressive economist Jason Furman’s concern that while a quick economic rebound from the current recession would be wonderful for the country, it would also occur just in time to give Trump an unearned boost to reelection, as Politico reports:
Instead of forecasting a prolonged depression-level economic catastrophe, Furman laid out a detailed case for why the months preceding the November election could offer Trump the chance to brag — truthfully — about the most explosive monthly employment numbers and GDP growth ever …
Furman’s argument is not that different from the one made by White House economic advisers and Trump, who have predicted an explosive third quarter, and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who said in late April that “the hope is that by July the country’s really rocking again.” White House officials were thrilled to hear that some of their views have been endorsed by prominent Democrats.
A so-called “V-shaped recession” could indeed produce record negative numbers for the second quarter of 2020, and record positive numbers for the third, which would be in the air (and on the MAGA airwaves) going into Election Day.
Traditionally it is assumed that perceptions of the president’s economic stewardship are “baked in” by the middle of any election year; that’s why many election models for an incumbent president make second-quarter GDP or unemployment numbers a big data input. But with wild swings like we could see in this year, it’s not at all clear the second quarter will matter more than the third. But as Furman and other analysts say, Democrats from Joe Biden on down need to anticipate a “Happy Days Are Here Again” message from the Trump reelection campaign and counter accordingly:
“In absolute terms, the economy will look historically terrible come November,” said Kenneth Baer, a Democratic strategist who worked in a senior role at the Office of Management and Budget under Obama. “But relative to the depths of April, it will be on an upswing — 12 percent unemployment, for example, is better than 20, but historically terrible. On Election Day, we Democrats need voters to ask themselves, ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ Republicans need voters to ask themselves, ‘Are you better off than you were four months ago?’”
The truth is neither party can be all that sure what the fall will bring. If an economic rebound is accompanied by a “second wave” of coronavirus infections, that may not only offset good feelings about the economy but also sour economic expectations for the near future. And from a political standpoint, there is always the very real possibility that positive and negative perceptions of Trump even when it comes to the economy are about team loyalties more than GDP or unemployment data. But if tens of millions of Americans have lost and then regained jobs by September and October, it’s an experience that is bound to be on their minds in early November. If that matters most, we should be able to see it in Trump’s overall job-approval ratings. And if not, perhaps nothing can save him.