In the nine weeks left in the 2020 campaign, President Donald Trump has an especially daunting task: Convince a skeptical American public that the coronavirus-ravaged U.S. economy is actually roaring back and will soon return to the status he regularly calls the greatest in world history.
He faces serious obstacles. The U.S. economy pre-coronavirus was far from the greatest in history, leaving most Americans with little cushion for the latest plunge. Now Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other senior White House officials risk sounding out of touch cheerleading a still-struggling economy with a jobless rate over 10 percent — above its peak during the Great Recession — and close to 30 million people getting some kind of unemployment assistance.
Republican speakers spent much of the GOP convention talking up recent gains — for women, for people of color, for other lower-wage workers — that have since evaporated. For millions of Americans, the rosy picture simply no longer exists while for others the numbers were technically accurate but skipped the context of the devastation that came before.
“There were a lot of lies in there but also a bunch of truths,” Harvard Kennedy School economist Megan Greene said of happy talk on the economy at the convention. “It’s true we could have the best quarterly growth ever and the most-ever jobs created in a short time. But that’s only because it’s coming off an incredibly low base. In the end, I think it could just leave people feeling really confused.”
Are we a country that’s failed disastrously to respond to a global pandemic, or a country that’s overrun by protests and violence on the streets? Democrats and Republicans painted wildly different pictures of America at their party conventions this month.
And Trump’s description of the current state of the economy, according to Greene, “is totally off the mark to anyone who actually looks at the data.”
For the voters who are still making voting decisions based on the economy, the choice may come down to whether they’re among the slice of America doing remarkably well after the coronavirus crash — such as higher-wage workers and investors in the stock market — or those suffering job loss or gripped by uncertainty about the road ahead. In fact, for years during the last decade Republicans hammered Democrats on the economy at a time when the underlying data was better than it is today.
As Trump tries to make the last two months of the campaign about the “great American comeback,” Democratic nominee Joe Biden plans to hammer away on the current state of the economy while blaming much of it on the incumbent’s handling of Covid-19. Covid-19-linked deaths averaged around 1,000 per day in August, double the rate from early July.
“His extreme negligence in the face of the coronavirus outbreak triggered one of the most devastating economic events for working families in American history,” said Biden spokesman Andrew Bates. “And incomprehensibly, after seven months, Trump still has no plan to bring the pandemic under control or end the recession.”
Polls also suggest Trump is on shaky ground talking up the economy, once one of his strongest selling points. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week during the convention found that 58 percent of Americans view the economy as on the wrong track. And for the first time this year, the poll showed Trump with net negative approval numbers on the economy, down from an approval margin of 14 points in late March.
The economy Trump and others described at the GOP convention doesn’t match up with the reality on the ground for millions of Americans, including lower-wage, blue-collar workers who will be critical to the outcome in battlegrounds such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, all states the Biden campaign hopes to return to the Democratic column in November.
“In the new term as president, we will again build the greatest economy in history, quickly returning to full employment, soaring incomes and record prosperity,” Trump said in his acceptance speech.