We know Trump’s been anxious about the economy for the past few weeks, but his tweets Friday, consisting of all of the above, suggest a desperation to find something, anything, to fix the economy, or deflect blame for what can’t be fixed, before it sinks his reelection hopes.
“Everyone is nervous — everyone. … It’s not a panic, but they are nervous,” a Republican with close ties to the White House said in a deeply reported story by The Washington Post.
That was before Trump’s tweetstorm Friday morning. There is no recession yet, most analysts agree, and no guarantee of one in the next year and a half. But the totality of Trump’s tweets sure sounds closer to panic than nervousness.
Let’s start with the most egregious of the president’s blame-casting: that Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell is an enemy of the state comparable to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The Fed is an independent agency charged with setting monetary policy in the United States. One of the most prominent ways it does that is by setting benchmark interest rates that help determine how much lending money to buy a house or a car or any other number of things will cost. Wall Street watches what the Fed does intensely, even obsessively. So, yes, the Fed plays a large role in the country’s economic health.
Trump has criticized the Fed for not lowering interest rates fast enough to grease the economy. But Trump’s argument that the Fed is to blame for an impending recession, and that its chairman has it out for the United States as much as a sometimes-antagonistic foreign government, is both factually and politically problematic.
Economists and analysts say a slowing global economy is what could lead to a recession here in the United States. An indicator of a potential looming recession showed up recently in the bond market. And they also say Trump’s trade war with China has exacerbated what is happening globally.
Politically, Trump is trying to make the egregious claim that someone he nominated for the job is akin to an enemy of the state. If we’re to follow that to its logical conclusion, then Trump has some answering to do for why Powell is in one of the most powerful jobs in America.
Powell may be powerful, but he’s not a household name. Which means Trump has some work to do to convince Americans that the slowing economy is the fault of someone they have never heard of whose job many Americans can’t fully understand.
Maybe that’s why Trump is also flailing for other people or institutions to blame for what he fears: a recession on his watch, just in time for his reelection campaign. In the past week alone, he has blamed journalists (for writing about the economy?); the Chinese president; and, in a way, U.S. companies. Look at this part of the tweets he sent Friday morning lashing out at the Fed:
“Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including bringing your companies HOME and making your products in the USA."
If it was that easy to solve what Trump has pinpointed as the United States’ economic woes (outsourcing), why didn’t he just send that tweet when he became president on Jan. 20, 2017?
Trump is also sending mixed messages here to his base. He has acknowledged in recent days that his trade war with China will hurt American consumers. Somebody had to do it, is a good summation of his new mantra. But in this fanciful version of events, Trump is nowhere to blame.
The great irony in all this is that presidents don’t have that much leverage over the economy, at least not as much as voters give them credit for. But Trump has enough of a grip on reality to understand that every president but one since the Civil War going into reelection with a recession has lost that election. Can he be the first president in modern times to reverse that trend by latching onto someone else to blame?
It seems like a long shot, but he’s trying.