For months now, economic experts have been warning that we could be in for a recession sometime soon. No one knows for sure when it might occur, but it will eventually; the current expansion has been going since the summer of 2009, nearly twice as long as the average expansion since World War II. And if the economy turns downward in the next two years, how is President Trump — so well known for his thoughtfulness and forbearance — going to react?
We’re getting a preview already as warning signs begin to emerge. Trump has shut down the government, continues a trade war with China and, most of all, is attacking everyone in sight for anything troubling that occurs in the economy. He is the blamer in chief, and he’s just getting started.
The most visible trouble is happening in the stock market, and it’s almost comical now to note that it was just weeks ago that the president would tout every good day for the Dow as evidence of his brilliance as an economic manager. But the market situation has now become quite disturbing: “By the end of Monday’s shortened holiday trading session, the great bull market that began in the lows of March 2009 lay lifeless, capping a three-week, 16 percent sell-off of the S&P 500.”
The greatest source of the instability investors hate is Trump himself, which is why, according to the Wall Street Journal, his advisers (as ever, treating him like a toddler) are exploring whether the Federal Reserve chair might be able to convince Trump to stop publicly attacking him: “With a view toward giving Mr. Trump a clearer idea of Fed Chairman Jerome Powell’s work and focus, administration aides have discussed setting up a private meeting between the two men early in the new year … While Mr. Trump has singled out the Fed as the source of market turbulence, former senior economic officials have privately warned the White House that the president’s tweets and statements are making matters worse.”
Trump has not only been tweeting angrily at Powell over interest rate hikes but has also reportedly asked advisers whether he’s allowed to fire the Fed chair. But Powell is not the only target of his ire; CNN reports that “President Donald Trump’s frustration with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is ratcheting up further after markets suffered their worst Christmas Eve drop ever following Mnuchin’s attempts to calm Wall Street failed, according to a source close to the White House.” Meanwhile, there are signs from overseas that the entire world may be on the verge of an economic slowdown.
Trump can’t decide whose fault it is, but he knows it’s not his.
Most presidents, both Democrat and Republican, are smart enough to realize that being too triumphal when the economy does well is a good way to court karmic payback. After all, nothing in the economy is forever — what goes up inevitably goes down, and vice versa. Every president in modern times has experienced good periods and bad ones. And they know that there’s only so much the president can do to affect the economy anyway. Federal policies matter, but they can’t turn a recession into a boom.
So when things are going well, presidents credit their own policies but mostly pay tribute to the ingenuity and industriousness of the American people; when there’s a recession, they assure the public that with enough faith and persistence, we’ll pull through.
Trump, however, is entirely incapable of the kind of unifying, hopeful rhetoric that we typically see during recessions. He just doesn’t have it in him. Instead, should a recession come, he’ll act as though the entire thing was planned and executed by his enemies to prevent him from receiving the adulation that is his due. He will make it intensely personal, just as he does everything else.
As for any policy changes he might make to address a recession, the best we can hope for is that Trump doesn’t make things worse. His Republican allies in Congress will say the only answer to our economic problems is another round of tax cuts, particularly for the wealthy, which will probably sound to him like a great idea. We know that because no matter what the problem is, that’s their solution. The bubonic plague could return, and Republicans would propose that we stop it with a cut to the capital gains tax.
Republicans do warm to stimulus spending if there’s a Republican in the White House when a recession comes, but they’ll want it to help those who need it least; as an example, they supported a stimulus bill in early 2008 when George W. Bush was president but made sure it didn’t do too much to help poor people, who would have spent whatever help they received more quickly and provided the biggest boost to the economy.
It’s hard to predict what policy changes Trump would advocate, because he has so few firm ideas about policy to begin with. But do we really think he’ll spend long days huddling with economists to determine what complex package of steps he can take to mitigate the damage and help the downturn last for the least amount of time possible? Or instead, will he . . . act like Trump?
We know the answer. Trump will direct most of his time and attention to casting blame on anyone other than himself. If a recession comes, it will touch off a particularly ugly period for this president, if you can imagine such a thing.
Presidents always get more credit than they deserve when the economy is good and more blame than they deserve when things turn south. But as the sign on Harry Truman’s desk read, “The buck stops here.” Trump has spent a lifetime evading responsibility, but if a recession comes, he’ll find that Truman was right. No matter how he rages and complains, no matter how many angry tweets he sends, no matter how many times he says it’s the fault of Democrats or the Fed or China or the news media, no matter how unfair he says everyone is being to him, he’s the one voters will blame.