President Trump likes to dismiss polls, but there's one number that has always been pretty spot on about Trump: Whether voters trust him to grow the economy.
Throughout the 2016 campaign, no matter how low his overall poll numbers dived, voters would still give Trump really high marks on the economy. He typically polled 50 percent — or better — when voters were asked if they “trust” Trump to “do a better job” on the economy in the Fox News and CNN polls.
Hillary Clinton, in contrast, struggled to poll above 45 percent on this top issue.
On October 7, The Washington Post broke the news of the bombshell “Access Hollywood” tape, where Trump made lewd and sexually aggressive comments about women. Trump's poll numbers tanked. Clinton surged ahead by six or seven points in most polls.
But even then, Trump's numbers on the economy barely dipped. He had a commanding lead over Clinton on the economy question by the time Fox News conducted its Oct. 15-17 poll.
After the election, the “Trump bump” on the economy continued. The stock market soared and consumer and business confidence jumped, according to numerous metrics like the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index, the Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index and the NFIB Small Business Optimism Index.
“People went from being despondent to being overconfident and euphoric,” says Peter Atwater, who studies sentiment data as president of Financial Insyghts.
Since Trump took office, Fox News has been asking Americans whether they “approve” or “disapprove” of Trump's handling of the economy. Trump received in the high 40s all through the spring, even as his overall presidential approval numbers sank to 40 percent (or worse). But the latest Fox poll, released last week, fell to 45 percent approval on the economy.
For the first time in his presidency, more Americans disapproved of how he was managing the economy than approved, according to the poll. It could end up being a temporary dip. Polling data is noisy. Plus, his approval on the economy is still better than his overall rating. But it's not the only sign of trouble.
Atwater blames the health care fiasco for the decline. It's a core pocketbook issue for many Americans. Trump has not been able to deliver a victory to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. It's a tangible promise to voters that is going unfulfilled — and raising serious doubts about whether Trump can get anything else done in his “MAGA-nomics” agenda. “The danger of this administration is they don't have a win yet for Trump's most supportive base,” says Atwater.
The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll found only 43 percent approval of Trump's handling of the economy (45 percent among registered voters). A Bloomberg poll out last week wasn't much better: Just 46 percent like the president's economic leadership. These polls haven't tracked the issue over time though.
Quinnipiac University, which has been polling regularly about Trump on the economy, has seen a marked increase in disapproval. In early March, disapproval was only 41%. Now it is 49% on the economy. The uptick began in late March.
The various consumer and business confidence indexes are still higher than they were a year ago, but they, too, are starting to wane. The most telling is the University of Michigan monthly survey of consumers. “When directly asked to evaluate economic policies of the Trump administration, just 17 percent of all consumers rated them favorably,” Richard Curtin, director of the University of Michigan survey, wrote in his June report. Even among Republicans, “favorable policy ratings fell to 37 percent from 51 percent three months ago.”
Overall, consumers are pretty happy with the current state of the U.S. economy, but when the University of Michigan asks them about future expectations, their views are getting gloomier.
Future expectations dropped again in July, especially among independents and even some Republicans. In February, only 37 percent of independents anticipated a recession in the next five years. Now that figure is above half. Among Republicans, it has jumped from 14 percent in February to 22 percent in July.
The University of Michigan survey is different from the political polls. It mostly asks how people feel about the broader economy. But it's notable that expectations for the economy in the coming years — basically for Trump's tenure — have declined.
David Kotok, chief investment officer of Cumberland Advisors, says “Washington chaos” is causing the shift in sentiment. The stock market is still at all-time highs, but the chatter among investors and chief executives about the Trump administration isn't euphoric anymore.
“There is no question that the administration's tweets, talks and fake-new-versus-real-news politics are creating a chaotic view among observers,” says Kotok. Even JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon blasted Trump — and Congress — for letting America down. Dimon, who is a member of Trump's chief executive advisory group, went as far as to say it's “almost embarrassing being an American citizen” right now.
It's a critical point for the Trump administration. The president has come up empty handed, again, on health care as senators in his own party don't think there is a good enough plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. Tax reform and infrastructure spending have yet to morph into anything more than talking points.
“Many of my clients are deferring business decisions because they have no idea what taxes will be, what regulation will be, what policies will be,” says Kotok. “That's how you get 1.5 percent to 2 percent growth.”
Trump has promised 3 percent growth. To get that, he needs American families and businesses to spend and invest substantially more. They won't spend if they aren't feeling good about the future. If companies don't start investing more in new plants and equipment and more research, he's unlikely to get above the 2 percent economic growth that he deplored when Barack Obama was president.
Trump had hoped to be an economic savior for many. Faith in his ability to do that is slipping.