It will be interesting to see how much of a factor the booming U.S. economy will play in the midterm elections, now less than two months away.
There's little doubt, as President Donald Trump likes to remind us, that the economy is doing quite well by just about any measure: It grew at an annualized rate of 4.2 percent in the second quarter of this year. The national unemployment rate in August was 3.9 percent, near an 18-year low; employers added 201,000 jobs during the month. The stock markets are at record highs. There even were signs last week that wages, so stagnant for so long during the economic recovery, finally are increasing, jumping 0.4 percent in August and up 2.9 percent from a year earlier. (However, inflation also reached 2.9 percent in July from a year earlier, essentially wiping out that gain.)
Trump's partisans say that the tax cuts the president helped pushed through Congress and his administration's deregulation efforts get much of the credit for the economic boom. And there's certainly some truth in that.
But it also is true, as former President Barack Obama noted last week, that many of the economic trends Trump is trumpeting started during Obama's watch: Job growth in the United States now is in its 95th straight month, and Trump has been president for only 19 of those months. In the 19 months of the Trump administration, the economy has created 3.58 million new jobs, a good number, but one that still falls a little short of the 3.96 million jobs created in the last 19 months of Obama's presidency.
After months of silence, Obama last week ripped into Trump, as Democrats prepared to deploy the former president into battleground states for the election campaign.
“When you hear how great the economy’s doing right now, let’s just remember when this recovery started,” Obama said in a speech kicking off a midterm campaign blitz. “When you hear about this economic miracle that’s been going on, when the job numbers come out, monthly job numbers, suddenly Republicans are saying it’s a miracle. I have to kind of remind them, actually, those job numbers are the same as they were in 2015 and 2016.”
Trump and his supporters were quick to fire back: “He was trying to take credit for this incredible thing that’s happening,” Trump told his supporters during a rally in North Dakota. "It wasn't him."
Some of this economic jockeying is to be expected from presidents from rival political parties. And, as we have noted in previous editorials, presidents love to take the credit for good economic times, in large part because voters tend to blame presidents for dismal economies. The truth is, of course, that the economy's health hinges on many factors, and many of those are beyond the control of any president — interest rates, for example, or the state of the global economy.
Normally, an economic boom would suggest good electoral fortunes for the political party in power in Washington — in this case, of course, Republicans. Voters delighted by their economic fortunes would be hesitant to toss the incumbents out at the ballot box — or so the conventional wisdom goes.
Of course, the conventional political wisdom isn't worth much these days. In that light, the Democratic strategy here is clear: If you neutralize the economic advantage Trump and Republicans have, the midterm elections could focus more on Trump's job performance in other areas. However, if voters pleased with the state of the economy find they're not that concerned with the rest of Trump's performance, that could spell doom for Democratic efforts to regain control of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate (although the latter is a much longer shot).
To paraphrase the memorable words of Democratic political operative James Carville: "It's the economy, stupid." The question over the next eight weeks is this: Is this election going to be about more than just the economy? (mm)