Voters bullish on economy, bearish on Trump
By ALBERT R. HUNT | Bloomberg View | Published: February 5, 2018
There is an acute struggle dividing U.S. voters that isn’t about Democrats versus Republicans or differences on issues.
It’s about the public’s optimistic view of the economy during the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency and the simultaneously pessimistic view of Trump himself. The contrast is striking.
Polls show overwhelming satisfaction with the state of the economy, the most since the final three years of President Bill Clinton’s administration and the early months of the George W. Bush presidency.
Investor and consumer confidence are on a roll. In January, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 index both rose by about 5 percent. Last week, the Conference Board reported that consumer confidence was nearing a 17-year high.
At the same time, no president has had job-approval and personal-popularity ratings as low as Trump’s after one year in office. Polls show him to be much less admired personally at the same stage of his presidency than his two White House predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush. His personal poll ratings also lag former Vice President Joe Biden’s and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s.
“Like cars with good shock absorbers, presidents with personal popularity seem to take the bumps,” said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster. For Trump, he said, “it can only be described as a year of personal alienation.” The president gets negative marks on integrity, temperament and knowledge.
Trump’s ratings improved a bit last week after his State of the Union speech last week. He was an effective cheerleader for the tax cuts enacted in January, which he credited with improving the economy. As always with Trump, facts were a casualty: His claim that the economy has added 200,000 jobs a month since his election was 17 percent too high, with the real number actually lower than the number created in the same period in Obama’s final year. The economy did add 200,000 jobs in January, the Labor Department reported on Friday. The tax cut may have played a part, but it wasn’t, contrary to his boast, anywhere near the largest in history.
He is far from the first president to make false claims or exaggerations in State of the Union speeches and lots of other venues. In touting the Affordable Care Act, for example, Obama claimed dozens of times that “if you like your health care plan you can keep it.” That was false. But there’s no question about Obama’s basic respect for the truth.
By contrast, no president has lied as often, as blatantly and as casually as Trump. He seems to believe that if you repeat a falsehood enough, many people will come to believe it.
That may be a political strength. Many Republicans think of Trump as a super salesman, a P.T. Barnum of presidents. And the soaring public confidence in the economy gives people a rationale for turning a receptive ear to Trump’s exaggerated claims.
The president’s supporters argue that more of these voters will come around. “It takes time for people to feel the good news in the economy,” said Andrew Surabian, a protégé of Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon and senior adviser to the pro-Trump Great American Alliance. “Over time, what he is doing will take full effect.”
Democrats tend to disagree. The economy, they contend, has been strong since Trump took office, including during periods when Trump’s popularity was falling. The political pluses of the tax cuts are overrated, they contend, while the political perils of threatened cuts in Social Security and Medicare are real. They’re betting that most voters outside Trump’s loyalist base will not warm to his polarizing tactics and mean-spirited public pronouncements.
Of course, the economy isn’t the only thing that will ultimately determine how Americans come to see Trump. A foreign crisis or the outcome of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible links to Russian interference in the U.S. campaign could also have a strong impact.
And let’s not forget that presidents have far less influence on economic ups and downs than many people tend to think — no White House has ever controlled the business cycle. The long recovery from the 2008 financial crisis can’t go on forever, no matter how sunny the outlook appears.
“When people are happy and confident, something wrong happens,” warned the private-equity billionaire David Rubenstein at a Bloomberg-sponsored forum at the World Economic Forum conference last month in Davos, Switzerland.
If that “something wrong” happens with Trump in the White House, that’s when the public’s distaste for his personality will hit him hardest. There will be no safety net to catch his fall.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at The Wall Street Journal.