Trump’s Economic Cheerleading Is Suddenly Tested

WASHINGTON — One of President Trump’s greatest strengths in his presidential campaign is his economic salesmanship: He has convinced a devoted share of Americans that his leadership has made the U.S. economy bulletproof and markets would crash if he were defeated in November.

The president’s ability to set the economic narrative is buoyed by an 11-year economic expansion, with rising wages and unemployment at a 50-year low. That strength presents a challenge for the Democrats hoping to unseat him in November — even though Mr. Trump’s cheerleading is often overstated and parts of the economy are slowing, including manufacturing.

That helps explain why Mr. Trump has played down economic damage from the coronavirus and dismissed the stock market plunge: They threaten to undermine the most effective story he tells about his presidency.

“The country is in great shape, the market is in great shape,” Mr. Trump told reporters outside the White House on Tuesday, as stocks tumbled after the Federal Reserve’s rate cut. The S&P 500 ended the day down about 2.8 percent.

Mr. Trump has blamed any growth hiccups on external events, like the Democrats running for president, troubles at the aerospace giant Boeing and the Federal Reserve. He has praised consumers and the economy’s strength, even as forecasters warn that the virus could dampen growth at least temporarily this year.

On Monday, Mr. Trump suggested on Twitter that House Democrats pass a one-year cut in payroll taxes, a form of fiscal stimulus often aimed at boosting consumer spending at times of economic weakness. Yet the president did not concede any economic trouble.

“This is an incredible time for our nation,” he wrote on Twitter. “Jobs are booming, incomes are soaring, poverty is plummeting, confidence is surging.”

That kind of rhetoric has served Mr. Trump well during his first three years in office, helping him win credit — at least among supporters — for what remains a strong economy. But experts warn that it has also helped widen a partisan divide on the economy, which may make it more difficult for Mr. Trump to reassure the public in the event of a crisis, like the spread of coronavirus.

“The aura of the office, where people might have deferred to the message about the state of the economy, I think today that’s gone,” said Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford University. “It’s gone because of the hyper-partisanship.”

Americans who tune into Mr. Trump’s messages are far more likely to echo his language on the economy and are more optimistic about it, according to a new nationwide poll conducted last month for The New York Times by the online research firm SurveyMonkey.

Respondents were asked to choose from a list of terms that could describe the state of the economy. Those who said they regularly watched or followed news coverage of Mr. Trump’s speeches were about twice as likely to describe the economy as “booming” or the “best economy ever,” and they were far more likely to express confidence in the economy and give Mr. Trump credit for its condition.

The split persisted among Democrats, independents and even among Republicans. More than eight in 10 Republican voters who regularly follow Mr. Trump’s speeches say Mr. Trump deserves “a lot” of credit for the economy. Only about one in three Republicans who do not regularly follow the speeches said the same.

Will Hicks, a 32-year-old survey respondent in the oil field town of Roosevelt, Utah, said Mr. Trump’s election provided an immediate jolt to people in his area. He credits Mr. Trump and his boosterism for much of that, even though he said the president’s claims were often overstated.

“His viewpoint is all positive, that we’re going to get greater, we’re going to improve our economy,” Mr. Hicks said. “I think that push forward, even though it might be a little bit of an exaggeration, has helped the economy.”

Some economists agree. Robert Shiller, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at Yale, has described Mr. Trump’s cheerleading as the driving force behind the continuation of the now-record economic expansion over the last three years.

In a presentation earlier this year — in which he compared Mr. Trump’s economic messaging to the spread of a pandemic virus — Mr. Shiller reported than 62 percent of newspaper articles that mentioned a “strong economy” from 2017 to 2019 also mentioned Mr. Trump. That’s more than twice the rate of association that President Bill Clinton enjoyed during a stronger economy in the late 1990s.

Mr. Trump “is our first motivational-speaker president,” Mr. Shiller said.

Mr. Trump made grand economic promises a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, and he reveled in the stock-market surge that followed his victory. Even before he took office, consumer and small-business confidence levels soared, driven largely by Mr. Trump’s Republican supporters. Both measures have remained elevated throughout his term, with sentiment among Republican consumers hitting a record high in February in a long-running survey from the University of Michigan.

But on several measures, the economy has fallen short of the president’s promises. It grew 2.3 percent last year, well below the forecasts of Mr. Trump’s economic team, as the president’s trade war chilled business investment. Economic growth in the first three years of President Barack Obama’s second term was nearly identical to that of Mr. Trump’s first three years. Median wage growth is no higher today than it was in October 2016, and it remains well below the levels of the late 1990s.

Small business owners’ expectations for capital investment now are essentially unchanged from before the 2016 election. Among consumers, the postelection rise in confidence has failed to translate into a sustained improvement in spending, shattering a longstanding relationship. After Mr. Trump’s election, said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, “a gap opened up between the spending and confidence numbers, and that gap has persisted.”

The confidence gap is driven entirely by asymmetric partisanship, powered by a surge in Republican sentiment. When Mr. Obama was in office, surveys consistently showed that Democrats felt better about the economy than Republicans. When Mr. Trump was elected, the pattern reversed almost overnight, though the surge in Republican optimism was larger than the drop-off among Democrats.

Masha Krupenkin, a Boston College political scientist, said Republicans show bigger swings in economic confidence, and exhibit a similar pattern in surveys that ask about trust in government, depending on which party controls the White House, compared with Democrats.

The Times survey showed Democrats were less optimistic about the economy and less willing to credit Mr. Trump for it than Republicans were. Confidence among independent voters has fallen to a level between that of Democrats and Republicans, but closer to Democrats’, during Mr. Trump’s term. (Optimism among independents surged in January, but came back to earth in February, according to the Times survey.)

Douglas Prasher, a Democratic voter in Prescott Valley, Ariz., said he didn’t buy claims that the economy was doing well — and he didn’t think Mr. Trump deserved credit if it was. Mr. Prasher, 68, recently retired to Arizona from San Diego, which he said had become unaffordable because of sky-high housing costs. His new home state is cheaper, but he has still had to take on a part-time job to make ends meet. He carries hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt from helping his daughters go to college.

“As far as I’m concerned, people are suffering,” Mr. Prasher said. The supposedly strong economy, he said, “seems to only help the wealthy, which we’re not in that category.”

That rhetoric echoes the message of Democratic candidates running for the White House, who frequently claim that the economy is “rigged” or only works for the very rich. Democrats in the Times survey were much more likely to use that phrasing to describe the economy than Mr. Trump’s preferred terms. So were independents, who were six times as likely to call the economy “rigged” or badly broken” as to say it was the “best economy ever.”

Mr. Trump’s aggressive claims — that it is not just strong but “the best ever” — may make him less credible to people not already inclined to support him, said Michele Claibourn, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “It’s easier to resist as information if it feels exaggerated,” she said.

Ms. Claibourn said presidents have historically tried to distinguish between when they were speaking as party leaders and when they were addressing the public in their official, less partisan, capacity. Those lines have blurred over the decades. Under Mr. Trump, the distinction has disappeared almost entirely, she said.

Jim Tankersley reported from Washington, and Ben Casselman from New York.

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