The economy: A lost card

By Conor Kelly (TheLorian)

“It’s the economy, stupid.” This old phrase is both an apt description of what it takes to win an election and the bane of many pollsters ever since James Carville, a former advisor to Bill Clinton, coined the term. Indeed, Gallup recently reported that the economy is possibly the biggest issue among the American electorate. As such, it is important to contextualize how the economy has affected public opinion. This is, perhaps, why the president has bragged about the economy so much, hoping to maintain an appeal to the American people that has traditionally ensured reelection for many an incumbent. However, with COVID-19, some economic setbacks and mistakes on policy, the Trump administration may not be in the right position to brag for long.

Whenever there is a discussion surrounding the economy, the inevitable partisan talking-points will get thrown around, with each side taking credit for the economy when it is doing well and downplaying their roles in creating economic failures. This is not new, and President Trump is not the first to do it, nor will he be the last. However, what sets Trump apart is that his party controlled both the House and the Senate during the first half of his term. As such, the decisions are subject to greater scrutiny.

During the first few years of his administration, Trump was riding high on a strong economy. GDP growth was increasing at a moderate 2.5 percent annually, consistently added jobs for 76 months and the unemployment rate was approximately 4.7 percent, a low not seen in nearly ten years. And wages began to rise for the first time since the recession. While all of these things are symbols of a good economy, they don’t necessarily provide evidence in either direction that the president has had a hand in the economy. Indeed, merely because something occurs under a president does not mean that the president was responsible, for good or ill. This was true of Obama as it is for Trump. It is also worth noting that some of these reports are much lower than the promised revival Trump touted on the campaign trail. For example, Trump promised consistent GDP growth of about four percent. That did not happen. Presidents Carter and Reagan all had greater annual GDP growth than the Trump administration. And Trump’s growth was not much better than Obama’s.

More than that, economic trends don’t stop merely because the president changes. According to the Federal Reserve Economic Data, the unemployment rate had been declining since its high of 9.3 percent in October of 2010, halfway into the Obama administration and more than six years before Trump had taken his oath of office. In essence, Trump was riding a high for which he was not entirely responsible.  

Of course, none of these account for higher costs of living, racial differences in income, and who was the primary beneficiary of many of Trump’s policy. Nor does this address how his trade tariffs impaired investment in the economy. Still, they do provide a general view of the economy’s strength.

Then, there is the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether or not Trump handled the pandemic properly is a matter of great partisan debate, although it should surprise nobody where I stand on that issue. However, when examining Trump’s economy and how it has dealt with COVID-19, we do not need to examine Trump’s health policies, we only need to examine the consequences of the pandemic itself and how Trump has reacted to those consequences.

The pandemic wiped out 15 percent of American jobs in just two months, ramping up the unemployment to a high of 14.7 percent in April before it dropped down to 8.4 percent in August of this year. As a result, Trump is on his way to having one of the worst job loss records of any president. Granted, we have only been recording unemployment since 1948, but the fact that Trump has lost so many jobs speaks volumes about his chances. Trump has tried to bolster the economy, supporting a temporary stimulus package, which has now expired. And just last week, the Dow Jones plummeted by 650 points after a COVID-19 spike further startled investors. Last Friday, American stocks had the worst week they’ve had since March when the pandemic was just beginning to ravage the country.

Whether or not Trump’s policies worked in the past is now irrelevant because of COVID-19. He has to deal with a new reality and with only a few days before the election is finished, it seems unlikely that the economy will reflect a good position for Trump before Nov. 3. If anything, it will serve as a reminder of just how fragile our society truly is. And no president wants to run with themes like that.

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Conor J. Kelly was the Opinion Editor for the Lorian and a prolific staff writer. He graduated from Loras College in April of 2021 and is now pursuing his master's in political science at the University of Illinois, Springfield. You can find his new work on The Progressive American newsletter.

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