Democratic presidential nominee needs a good message for voters who might not like Trump as a person but who like the economy’s performance since he was elected: Our view
In the past century, incumbent presidents have been on the ballot 16 times. Only four times have they been turned out of office: Herbert Hoover was defeated at the height of the Great Depression. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush went down with unemployment at elevated rates in the 7% and 8% range.
For this reason, it’s a very good bet that President Donald Trump will make the economy a central piece of his reelection campaign. The unemployment rate is 3.5%, the lowest it has been since the 1960s, and the stock market has been setting new record highs.
The Democratic presidential nominee had better have a good message for voters who might not like Trump as a person but who like the economy’s performance since he was elected.
To date, however, the candidates’ prime pitch has been that the economy is only helping the rich. In last week’s debate, for example, former Vice President Joe Biden said, “The American public is getting clobbered. The wealthy are the only ones doing well.”
Wealth concentration, stagnant wages and the ongoing weakness in sectors such as manufacturing are surely worth discussion. But they can’t be the only thing out of a candidate’s mouth without general-election voters questioning his or her credibility. In polls over the past 12 months, roughly 70% of respondents say the economy is strong.
A better response would be to say that Trump inherited an economy that was on the rebound for seven straight years.
The nominee might also point out that Trump’s actions to juice the economy until the election will likely have serious long-term consequences: Trillion dollar deficits will be a burden on future generations. Jawboning the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates low could trigger future inflation. And reckless deregulation will produce health and safety scandals.
When Trump tries to argue that electing a Democrat would result in tanking the economy, the nominee might also point out that since World War II, the economy has done better under Democratic presidents than Republican ones. In particular, Democratic presidents have been more fiscally responsible. They ran up big deficits only during wars and deep recessions and, on two occasions, in 1969 and 2001, bequeathed budget surpluses to their Republican successors.
Barring a significant slowing of the economy before November, these are better arguments than those Biden and others put forth at the last debate.
While it is true that no incumbent president has been thrown out of office with a strong economy, there is one example — Lyndon Johnson — of an incumbent quitting rather than facing what looked like a dicey reelection. He made his decision not to run with an unemployment rate very much like today’s because the electorate was focused on the very unpopular Vietnam War.
Something similar is true now. Many voters generally like the economy but are deeply disturbed by Trump’s character and conduct.
The Democrat who wins the nomination ought to exploit these misgivings while maintaining credibility on economic matters. For voters who are working and watching their 401(k) balances rise, the sky-is-falling pitch is likely to fall flat.
USA TODAY’s editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view a unique USA TODAY feature.