Trump Can Sell an Improved Economy, but Not Himself
Posted January 31, 2018 12:28 a.m. EST
WASHINGTON — When he took office, President Donald Trump painted a bleak picture of a country ravaged by economic turmoil, a landscape of “American carnage,” as he so memorably put it. A year later, he presented the nation on Tuesday night with a different narrative, one of a booming economy and a “new American moment.”
The stock market has “smashed one record after another.” Retirement accounts have “gone through the roof.” Companies are “roaring back” to the United States. “We haven’t seen this in a long time,” he exulted from the rostrum of the House chamber as he delivered his first formal State of the Union address. “It’s all coming back.”
Never mind that in some fundamental ways the economy is growing no faster than it did at points during President Barack Obama’s second term. Trump is at heart a salesman, and he rarely lets details get in the way of a good story. And by some measures, he has managed to convince many Americans, especially corporate leaders, that the economy really is surging in a way it has not for years.
The challenge for Trump is that even as he sells the economy with the fervor of a real estate developer, he has not been able to sell himself. His approval ratings remain at historic depths, and effectively unchanged after a year in office. His success at passing tax cuts and the continued progress of the economy he inherited have not changed the dismal views that a sizable majority of Americans hold of their president.
Just 37 percent of Americans approve of the job he is doing, according to the latest survey by the Pew Research Center, lower than for any modern president after a year in office and no better for all of his efforts. Forty-one percent think he will be an unsuccessful president, twice as many as last year and nearly twice as many as those who think he will be successful. Far fewer Americans think he keeps his promises than thought so when he was inaugurated.
Trump’s outsize personality has so polarized the country that he may not be able to win over many converts easily, even with opportunities like a national television audience of tens of millions. His goal for the speech was to reach beyond his base and put forward a more optimistic, bipartisan face to a presidency that has been exceedingly divisive, but he has demonstrated before that such moments rarely last before he begins lobbing political artillery shells all over again.
“Every major address like this is an opportunity for reset, but that is unlikely in this case and even more unlikely still given that it’s an election year,” said Lanhee J. Chen, a scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford who advised Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012. “The current narrative, both for those who oppose the president and those who support him, has been established over the better part of two years — during a campaign and one year in office. It’s hard to see that changing dramatically.”
Matt Latimer, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, said the effect of a State of the Union address could be overstated, especially if it was not followed up consistently, and Trump has shown little capacity for that. “If past history is any guide, the president will only bask in praise for so long before he demonstrates his self-destructive tendency to undo it all in the form of an avoidable controversy or an offensive tweet,” he said.
Trump largely stuck to the script as he read from the teleprompters, hailing U.S. successes in fighting the Islamic State, challenging the nuclear aspirations of North Korea and calling for bipartisan deals on immigration and infrastructure. Unlike other presidents, who used this platform to unveil a fresh legislative agenda, Trump offered little new in the way of policy proposals.
As much as it has consumed him over the past year, Trump said nothing about the special counsel investigation into any collaboration between Russia and his campaign in 2016. And he largely avoided mentioning the acrimonious episodes of the past year beyond a line about standing for the national anthem, a reference to his criticism of National Football League players protesting racial injustice.
The partisan schism in the chamber was so powerful, though, that Democrats like Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California remained in their seats unmoved even when he preached unity, and many black lawmakers did not applaud when he cited record-low unemployment among black people, a trend that began six years before he took office. Some hissed when he promoted limiting the ability of immigrants to bring relatives to the United States.
In the hours before the speech, Trump was in reach-out mode. Meeting with television network anchors, he was asked what he had learned in his first year as president. “When you’re a businessman, you don’t have to worry about your heart, the heart,” he said. “You really do what’s best for you, you know, for almost purely monetary reasons. You know, you make your money.”
“In doing what I’m doing now,” he added, “a lot of it is heart, a lot of it is compassion, a lot of it is far beyond money, such as immigration, such as the things we’re talking about.”
Compassion is not the word his critics or even many of his admirers would use to characterize Trump’s tenure so far, at least when it comes to immigrants from Muslim countries or Africa, racial minorities protesting white supremacists, women subjected to sexual harassment or working families dependent on government health care programs. Just 33 percent of Americans said they thought of him as compassionate in a new Politico/Morning Consult poll.
His strength at the moment is an economy that seems to be humming and the possibility that it will grow stronger in the next year as a result of Trump’s tax cuts and regulatory rollback.
Still, his sales pitch went beyond the numbers. The economy grew by 2.3 percent in 2017, more than in 2016 but less than in 2014 or 2015. More than 2 million new jobs were created last year, a significant achievement but less than in any of the last six years of Obama’s tenure.
The difference is that the accumulation of growth has pushed the unemployment rate down to 4.1 percent, a 17-year low, which means that wages may increase in the coming year as employers compete for scarcer workers. And the other difference is that Trump unabashedly sells the success of the economy without the caveats and reservations that Obama tended to favor.
“He has done a good job resetting expectations — something important and, yes, a better cheerleader for optimism than President Obama,” said R. Glenn Hubbard, dean of the Columbia Business School and a former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers under Bush. Jared Bernstein, an economics adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden, said Obama never felt as comfortable with unalloyed claims of economic progress, fearing that it would look out of touch to many Americans who might not be enjoying the same benefits as others.
“Obama was a lot more cautious than Trump. Of course, who isn’t?” Bernstein said. “Like any president, he took some credit for economic gains over his watch, but he was always very cognizant, very conscious, that there were significant groups of people who were left behind, so any economic cheerleading was always tempered by the reality of the unequal distribution of economic growth.”
Trump’s cheerleading has helped convince Americans that the economy really is doing better. Fifty-eight percent of those who responded to a poll by ABC News and The Washington Post said the economy was in good or excellent shape, the most in 17 years. Yet just 38 percent credited Trump, while 50 percent said Obama deserved a great deal or good amount of credit.
Trump seems to recognize that he is having trouble uniting the country but took no responsibility for that, saying that it preceded his ascension to power.
“I would love to be able to bring back our country into a great form of unity,” he told the anchors. “Without a major event where people pull together, that’s hard to do,” he added, referring to a catastrophic moment like a terrorist attack. “But I’d like to do it without that major event, because usually that major event is not a good thing. I would love to do it.”
That really would be a new American moment.