President Trump regularly touts the state of the economy, with low unemployment and strong gross domestic product growth (last quarter, at least) as his greatest accomplishment and the thing that will ensure his reelection. But a new poll from The Post and ABC News shows some areas of potential vulnerability — if Democrats can take advantage of them.
Those vulnerabilities have to do with how people feel about the foundations of the American system, and who it’s working for:
President Trump’s strongest case for reelection remains the country’s healthy economy, but the potency of that issue for him is complicated by a widespread belief that the economy mainly benefits people already in power, a Washington Post-ABC News poll finds.
The result previews a fresh wave of populism that could reshape yet another presidential campaign with about 18 months to go before voters decide whether to return Trump to the White House.
This sentiment runs the deepest among Democratic and independent registered voters, but also exists among a significant slice of Republicans. About 8 in 10 Democrats and more than 6 in 10 independents say the country’s economic system gives an advantage to those already in power, while nearly a third of Republicans share that view.
What’s important about this is that even when the economy is doing well by many measures, it hasn’t dissuaded Americans from the belief that there is something seriously wrong.
I have no doubt that Trump understands this. When he ran for president, he told people that the system was “rigged,” and they believed him because they could see it all around them. If you live in a place that used to have manufacturing jobs with good wages, good benefits and job security, all negotiated by a union, but now the only place you can find work is at Walmart or a fulfillment center, it doesn’t seem like all our problems have been solved. Having a job is better than not having one, but having a job that barely makes it possible to get by is still going to leave you dissatisfied.
What Trump faces is that while he hinted at the right problem in 2016, the solution he came up with was standard Republican economics — tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, deregulation for corporations — with some trade wars tossed in. And at the same time trying to slash the safety net.
Which means that what Democrats should be talking about is not this month’s job creation numbers but the things that are more fundamental. What kind of opportunities do you have? Are you treated with respect and dignity on the job? Can you afford college for your kids? Is your health care secure and affordable? Do we have a tax system that isn’t skewed toward those at the top, and that funds the things we need? Is this really the best we can do?
As it happens, “the system is rigged” is a concise way of describing what the problem is, namely that all the rules are made by and for the wealthiest people and corporations, leaving regular people in a constant struggle for survival where they’re supposed to be thankful to have any work at all, while the CEO of their company makes 500 — or 1,000 —times what they do.
As this poll shows, there's an audience ready and waiting to hear that message. Among the Democratic candidates, only Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have put that critique of the system at the center of their campaigns, but just about any Democrat could do it.
Just to be clear, I'm not arguing that these poll results mean Trump is inevitably going down. By many of the more traditional measures, particularly unemployment, the economy is doing well and Trump may well get rewarded for that.
But what’s most striking about the situation at the moment is that Trump isn’t doing far better than he is. For comparison’s sake, unemployment at the end of Bill Clinton’s term was 3.9 percent, almost exactly what it is now; at the time his approval rating was around 60 percent. When Barack Obama left office, unemployment was at 4.7 percent; his approval ratings were in the high 50s. Unemployment under Ronald Reagan reached its low of 5.4 percent just before he left office; his approval was also in the high 50s. Trump’s approval, with an unemployment rate at 3.8 percent, is in the low 40s.
That almost certainly has more to do with what an awful human being Trump is, and the fact that his presidency is a dumpster fire in a hundred ways, than with judgments about the weakness of his economic program. But that just means there's room to make a powerful economic argument to the public that resonates with their own lives and what they see around them.
There are surely Democrats thinking that if the economy turns down before next November, as some economists think it will, then that will make it impossible for Trump to win reelection. But even if it doesn’t, they’ve got an extremely strong case to make to the voters on this issue.