Will Trump's 'Great American Comeback' work?

18 June 2020

4:15 PM

18 June 2020

4:15 PM

There’s no spinning it: if the U.S. presidential election were held today, it is highly unlikely Donald Trump would win a second term. And that’s saying nothing of the damning revelations emerging from John Bolton’s book about his former boss, whom he says ‘remained stunningly uninformed on how to run the White House’. The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll published just this week has former vice president and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden up 13 points nationally, with 57 per cent of Americans surveyed disapproving of Trump’s performance in office. Trump, who is notoriously obsessive about polling and typically dismisses any survey that shows him losing to Biden, will likely lash out at the Reuters study as fake news or unrepresentative of what is actually going on. His campaign already demanded CNN retract what it claimed was a ‘phony poll’ that presented ‘a false view generally of the actual support across America for the President’. Senate Republicans, normally docile and obedient to the White House, are starting to quietly murmur about 2020 being a banner year for the Democratic party – particularly if the numbers stay where they are as the race heads deeper into the summer.

Trump may not openly admit it, but he desperately needs a concrete message he can sell to the American people. Focusing like a laser-beam on the economy may seem strange at a time when millions of Americans are out of work due to the business closures associated with the coronavirus. But the Trump campaign has made a calculation that voters will ultimately respond in the president’s favour if the economy slowly gets back to normal.

The White House is labelling the effort ‘the Great American Comeback’. It’s a catchy, optimistic slogan slightly reminiscent to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign theme – that of an America that has so much potential with the right man in the Oval Office. The big difference between Trump 2020 and Reagan 1980, of course, is that Trump is presiding over the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and the most cataclysmic unemployment records since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping records.

Why, then, is Trump using the economy as a selling point? Simple: he and his people believe that when the numbers go back up, the president will be able to claim credit and reemphasise to Americans that he – and he alone – is uniquely suited to bring the country out of the financial doldrums and back to its status as the preeminent economic power. The Biden campaign scoffs at this reasoning and will no doubt remind voters between now and election day that it was Trump’s downplaying of the coronavirus crisis that forced millions of businesses to shut their doors in the first place. Yet given polls showing Trump with an advantage over Biden on who is best positioned to manage the economy, it’s not an unreasonable case for the Trump campaign to make.

Indeed, it at least appears that the worst is over. Retail sales have jumped nearly 18 per cent in May, which means that Americans are slowly but surely beginning to regain the consumer confidence so important to a thriving economy. The unemployment rate is still astronomically high compared to the pre-coronavirus era, but the number of Americans filing jobless claims is edging downward. Unemployment decreased from 14.7 per cent in April to 13.3 per cent in May, despite experts predicting a significant increase. Granted, 13.3 per cent is still huge; millions of small businesses may be ruined for good. But for Trump, a consistent rise in the numbers could provide him and his team just enough leverage to press his economic argument.

One is reminded of the old Bill Clinton campaign slogan, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’. During the 1992 presidential election, Clinton was running against an incumbent George H.W. Bush who seemed completely detached from the stubborn recession engulfing the nation at the time. The young, dynamic Clinton exploited the recession for full political benefit, winning the election and becoming the first Democrat to claim the White House in 12 years.

The question is still open as to whether Donald Trump – an incumbent whose rosy economic projections went haywire due to the pandemic – can do the same.

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