One formidable question lurking over presidential politics asks what role the economy will play in President Trump’s 2020 reelection bid. The usual approach to analyzing the question is to look at the trends in aggregate indicators such as GDP, jobs, wages and inflation.
But this approach is insufficient for Trump. To understand the effect of the Trump economy and its salience for the election, we must go beyond the top-line numbers and look at what he has done on behalf of the economically vulnerable families for whom he said he’d fight. It is here, through policy sins of commission and omission, many of which have happened behind the legislative scenes and have, thus, not been adequately elevated, that Trump is vulnerable on the economy, even with strong macroeconomic tail winds at his back.
Even the traditional indicators may be more of a mixed bag for Trump than you might think if you’re looking solely at the long expansion he inherited and the low national unemployment rate of 3.7 percent. It’s true that if you plug these numbers into most election prediction models, they help Trump a lot. But there are at least two mitigating factors.
First, changes matter more than levels, and the overall economy appears to be slowing. GDP growth was last seen downshifting from 3 to 2 percent per year, and average monthly job gains so far this year — 165,000 — are below last year’s level of 223,000. After accelerating in 2018, wage growth has stalled this year.
Second, Trump’s escalating trade war is working against his great-economy rap. It’s almost all pain and no gain at both the micro and macro levels. Besides battering the stock market, it’s not helping to lower our trade deficit, which is slightly deeper over Trump’s term, as trade wars tend to hit both exports and imports (exports as a share of GDP are the lowest they’ve been in almost a decade). The China tariffs cost the average household more than $400 last year, and that’s before the president’s latest plan to significantly increase the scope of these tariffs, with the next round directly hitting many more consumer goods.
Still, the expansion continues to post solid numbers and with low inflation, another pro-incumbent factor in prediction models, real wages are growing at a decent clip. Barring a big negative shock, Trump’s challengers might want to recall Sen. Bob Dole’s failed presidential bid in 1996, when he, too, tried to paint the “Clinton economy” as worse than it was.
To really understand where Trump has failed on the economy, ignore the favorable macro trends and look instead at his policies. Above the surface, there are the highly visible policies, two of which stand out in this context: Trump and Republicans’ unsuccessful attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and their successful tax cut.
The former, which clearly hurt Republicans in the midterm elections, would have led to an increase in the number of uninsured: more than 30 million, virtually all of whom would have been from middle- and low-income households. The tax cut is in the process of significantly redistributing income upward, exacerbating inequality trends and robbing the Treasury of the revenue it needs to offset the effect of these trends on vulnerable households.
But the next level down is where the real action is taking place. Through rule changes, executive orders, legal challenges and other devices, presidents can implement portentous policies (particularly in our era of congressional gridlock and dysfunction). This is where the Trump administration has taken its fight to undermine the ACA, slash the safety net and hurt immigrants.
There’s the high-profile lawsuit it’s supporting to strike down the ACA, but the administration has also relentlessly chipped away at health coverage through state waivers that roll back the scope of the law. It has sought to hassle people off anti-poverty programs with unnecessary work requirements. It’s trying to raise income-eligibility thresholds in a way that would lead to millions losing health coverage and/or facing benefit reductions. Its proposed “public charge” rule would “radically alter the U.S. immigration system, making it much harder for many immigrants lawfully in the country to remain here and for many seeking legal entry to come,” according to Shelby Gonzales of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Then there are the sins of omission. One of the most powerful pro-worker rule changes a president could make (again, without Congress) would be to raise the salary threshold below which workers must be paid overtime. As economist Heidi Shierholz points out, the Trump administration’s proposed version leaves behind over 8 million workers who would have been helped by the Obama administration’s 2016 proposal.
Sticking with eroding labor standards, the federal minimum wage has never been ignored for this long. Forced arbitration (which typically prohibits class actions by mistreated workers), employer-empowering industry concentration and anti-union actions have been allowed to flourish.
Some of this is legislative (raising the minimum wage) as opposed to administrative, and to be clear, such changes are more lastingly made through legislation. Under the current system, we’ll undergo huge policy lurches each time the party in the White House flips.
But there’s much more a truly pro-worker administration could do. It could have its Justice Department go after anti-union actions documented by Steve Greenhouse in his new book, including the 57 percent of employers that threatened to shut down rather than let workers organize. Same with revitalized antitrust. The Labor Department could prosecute the rampant misclassification of workers as independent contractors. Instead of tweeting racist screeds, the next president could tweet her thumbs off about the harm done to the working class by union busting, minimum-wage preemption, and “right-to-work” laws.
At this stage of the campaign, it’s great for Democratic presidential candidates to debate their aspirations, even if they do so with little regard for political reality. But as the election nears, voters need to hear much more both about how Trump has broken his promises to vulnerable families and what candidates will do under the highly plausible assumption that the system is as gridlocked then as it is now.
The current administration has revealed a rich array of powerful policies, information (or, in its case, disinformation) and legal actions that can be used to help or hurt the working class. If you want to be president, we’d like to know how you plan to use those tools.