With an economic crisis gripping the nation, President Donald Trump is reprising his 2016 slogan, with a twist: Make America Great Again, Again.
Trump is trying to defy history by convincing Americans he can restore a coronavirus-decimated economy and become one of the only U.S. presidents to win reelection during a recession. His argument, which has met with skepticism from economists, is essentially: I’ve already built the economy once, I can build it a second time.
“We had the greatest economy ever, and we’re going to do it again,” Trump says regularly.
Trump aides and allies have told the president privately he has no choice but to focus his campaign on rebuilding the economy, according to three people familiar with the discussions.
The president’s political advisers also say there’s reason to believe it’s a winning message. Recent campaign and public polling show Trump slightly outperforming likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on handling of the economy even as the president finds himself on shaky ground nationally and in battleground states less than six months before the election. On a conference call last week with surrogates, the Trump campaign cited new internal polling that showed Trump with a 15-percentage point advantage over Biden on the economy in 17 states the campaign is targeting in November, according to a person familiar with the call.
“The one issue Trump really clobbers Biden on is the economy, and so he’s got to stick with that message,” said Stephen Moore, a conservative economist who serves as an outside adviser to Trump. “He has to persuade people that his policies will work to get American businesses and jobs back.”
But Make America Great Again 2.0 may be a tough sell. Calvin Coolidge was the last president to win as an incumbent during a recession — and that was in 1924.
History is full of those who lost. President Herbert Hoover ran on the slogan “prosperity is just around the corner” in 1932 during the Great Depression, but lost in a landslide to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ronald Reagan beat President Jimmy Carter in 1980 after asking voters: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” And Bill Clinton used “It’s the economy, stupid” to push President George H.W. Bush out of office after a single term.
“From the days of Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama, you don’t get reelected if there’s a recession,“ presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said. “Trump would be shattering precedent if he could win reelection when the economy is taking this sort of downturn on his watch.”
And despite Trump’s claims of a swift economic rebound starting midyear, his hopes could be dashed if the virus returns in the coming months of reopening or spikes again in the fall as many public health officials predict.
Trump had expected to campaign on a list of what he claimed were his accomplishments, including a booming stock market, rising wages and job growth. He switched his slogan to Keep America Great. But the president’s campaign was transformed as the pandemic spread. Trump faced criticism that he downplayed the outbreak and failed to quickly get tests and medical supplies to states.
Instead, Trump began to focus on restoring the economy, pushing governors to reopen nonessential business even though most states had not yet met the White House benchmarks for easing social-distancing guidelines.
In online events, social media and interviews, the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee and White House aides boasted that the businessman-turned-president had once overseen the “greatest economy in the history of the world.”
“President Trump’s record of building the American economy to unprecedented heights before it was artificially interrupted is even more salient now,” said Sarah Matthews, a Trump campaign spokeswoman, in a statement. “He has been the jobs president and Americans will look to him and his proven success to restore the economy to greatness.”
While the campaign continues to attacks Biden on a variety of issues — his mental acuity, his stance toward economic rival China, alleged hypocrisy amid a sexual assault allegation — it has added criticism about the economy, too.
“If the election is a referendum on Trump’s response to the pandemic, he will lose,” said William Galston, an adviser to Clinton during the ’92 election who now serves as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “If the central question is the prospect for economic recovery looking forward to ’21 and ’22, his chances are better.”
The Trump campaign’s main economic attack on Biden is that as vice president to President Barack Obama, he oversaw the slowest economic recovery since World War II after the 2008 financial crisis. The campaign also accuses him of wanting to raise taxes and implement regulations it claims would hurt American businesses.
The Biden campaign says Trump badly misrepresents the former vice president’s record. They note Biden oversaw the implementation of a $787 billion economic stimulus package, which created from 2 million to 4.8 million full-time jobs, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The Biden camp also accuses Trump of exaggerating the financial successes under his watch — a charge fact-checkers back. Biden allies say the gains under Trump too heavily benefit Wall Street and haven’t addressed the quality of middle-class jobs, salaries and benefits.
“It’s undeniably clear President Trump inherited an economy that was on the upswing from the Obama-Biden years,” said Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who endorsed Biden in January. “People need to know that and I think Vice President Biden can and will speak more about that as the campaign goes on.”
Trump formally launched his reelection campaign last year amid rising wages and a soaring stock market. But in recent weeks, the unemployment rate has hit nearly 15 percent with 36.5 million Americans filing unemployment claims over the worst two-month stretch since the Great Depression.
Just like that, the stock market gains under Trump were erased. And Trump’s most significant legislative achievement — a tax-cut bill heavily favoring corporations — suddenly seemed pointless.
The markets have regained much of the lost ground, buoyed by reports about a possible vaccine and a commitment from the Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell for continued support from the central bank.
“President Trump created the conditions for one of the best labor markets in American history, particularly for working-class strivers,” said Steve Cortes, a senior adviser to the pro-Trump America First Action PAC. “Through deception and incompetence, the Chinese Communist Party crashed the global economy, but we could have no better leader to resurrect our prosperity than the architect of the first Trump boom.”
Several recent public polls indicate Americans trust Trump over Biden on handling the economy.
In a CNN/SSRS poll released last week, Trump held a 12-point advantage on the economy — up 4 points from last month. Forty-five percent of Americans said the president was better suited to create jobs, compared to 32 percent for Biden — up 7 points from mid-April — according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released earlier this month.
More recent polls show Trump losing ground, however.
A new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday showed less of an advantage for Trump — 44 percent to 41 percent on the economy, and 44 percent to 40 percent on jobs. But the results split largely along party lines. Separately, a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday shows the two men virtually tied on the economy.
After the conference call with surrogates last week, the Trump campaign sent out its own internal polling data, obtained by POLITICO, that acknowledged Biden had been ahead in a head-to-head matchup three weeks earlier but showed Trump closed the gap, with each now tied at 48 points. The poll also showed 55 percent of respondents in 17 states believed their state was ready to reopen safely, compared to just two weeks ago when 55 percent said the opposite.
Trump has called the third quarter a “transition to greatness” period and predicted the economy would “soar like a rocket ship” starting in the fourth quarter.
“I think we’re going to have a tremendous rebound,” he said recently. “There’s a great energy and a great pent-up demand.”
But some economic experts warn the downturn will likely bleed into next year and even beyond that, eclipsing the length of the Great Recession and even rivaling the Great Depression. Even after the coronavirus has subsided, market analysts caution that many businesses will never return and others will declare bankruptcy.
The president’s challenge now will be deciding how he plans to try and stave off the worst-case scenario. He has already worked with Congress to pass several relief bills that earmarked trillions of dollars for businesses, governments and individuals. But Powell said last week that more stimulus is needed to help avoid long-term economic damage, and Republicans have been reluctant to move on another relief package.
Meanwhile, House Democrats last week approved a $3 trillion package that included money for state and local governments, expanded food assistance and unemployment benefits and another round of stimulus payments for Americans. Trump, who met with Senate Republicans this week, has instead recently touted a payroll tax cut and more legal liability protections for businesses worried about a spate of lawsuits from coronavirus-infected employees and customers.
“The president didn’t make Covid-19. He’s had to deal with it,” said Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor and CEO of the drilling services company Canary LLC. “Trump was the reason confidence was up before, and he’s confident he can boost it again.”