Donald Trump's newest branding endeavor: the economy

Throughout his campaign for president, Donald Trump painted a gloomy picture of the American economy, scoffing at employment data that he said masked the truth.

“Our jobs are being stolen like candy from a baby,” the Republican said at an election-day rally in Michigan, lamenting how he saw global competitors like China outmaneuvering the U.S. economically. “They take our money. They take our jobs. They build their plants. They build their factories. We end up with unemployment and drugs.”

But his stunning election win seemed to change his —  and to some extent the public’s — outlook. The media-conscious president-elect has quickly adopted a role as the greatest cheerleader for an economy that was already on the rebound.

“The U.S. Consumer Confidence Index for December surged nearly four points,” Trump crowed in a tweet this week, noting in all caps that it reached a 15-year high. He added, with characteristic immodesty: “Thanks Donald!”

Donning the mantle of economic optimist is a time-honored tradition for presidents, who are seen as perhaps the most singularly influential person over the economy. Trump’s outlook, however, is notable for the reversal from the campaign and for his promotion of the unproven assertion that he himself is having a positive influence on the economy, even before he takes office. 

“It’s clear that there’s been a bounce in sentiment since the election,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. “Now, is that because he won the election or just because people are happy the election’s over? That’s impossible to know.”

The statistics Trump touts fit well into his view of a world divided into who’s up and who’s down, winners and losers. In place of the daily trickle of state and national political polls that dominated his campaign remarks, he has turned to the Consumer Confidence Index as well as the daily stock market closings for what he sees as his successes.​​​​​​

Like he did with polls, Trump has cherry-picked economic data. The Consumer Confidence Index did not suddenly rise after Trump’s election; it has, like other indicators, trended upward since bottoming out shortly after the 2008 economic collapse. Its first major spike came shortly after the inauguration of President Obama, and saw a similar uptick after his reelection in 2012.

Additionally, it is a volatile index, subject to negative pressure from political circumstance as well — most notably a 2011 battle over raising the nation’s debt limit that pushed the country to the brink of a historic default.

And another key part of his economic message, the touting of new jobs as if he were singularly responsible for their creation, ignores that they usually resulted instead from efforts already underway. On Wednesday, he trumpeted news that telecom company Sprint and technology start-up OneWeb would hire a total of 8,000 workers in the U.S. —  calling it "very good news" for the economy. 

But OneWeb, which is building a network of satellites to deliver high-speed Internet access, said nine days earlier that it expected to create nearly 3,000 jobs in the U.S. over the next four years after securing $1.2 billion in funding, mostly from Japan's SoftBank Group Corp. And the head of SoftBank, which owns Sprint, had said on Dec. 6 that the company had agreed to invest $50 billion in the U.S. and create 50,000 jobs here.

Earlier, Trump assumed credit for Carrier Corp.’s decision to keep a portion of its workforce in the state in return for state economic incentives and an agreement to hold off on potential new import tariffs on its goods. The chief executive of Carrier’s parent company, United Technologies, said conversations with Trump had helped spur the deal.

At an event in Iowa this month during his a thank-you tour, Trump touted the Carrier deal and said he’s been calling chief executives of other companies who have planned to outsource jobs.

“We’ve had great success. You’ll be seeing a lot more success,” he told the crowd.

But by tying himself so closely to any economic good news, Trump risks bearing the blame for any downturn.

Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who has conducted numerous surveys and focus groups since the election, said he has been struck by the changing attitude of Trump voters toward the economy.

“If you were a Trump voter, you really felt America was going to hell, and you were very skeptical that anything could be done to stop it,” he said. “You’re still skeptical now. But you believe that things have begun to turn around. It’s like the rainbow after the storm. Everything’s still wet. But you know that something better’s coming.”

That puts pressure on Trump ultimately to deliver tangible results, Luntz added, but he says his supporters likely will give him time.

“I don’t want to give the impression that they think happy days are here again. Because they don’t,” he said. “But they think now that someone is listening.”

Trump’s boosterism is a marked contrast with Obama’s more theoretical and analytical approach, said Matt McDonald, a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies and a Republican strategist.

“The working-class voters who rallied behind him, this is what they want to see,” he said. “They want to see someone fighting not for a good policy environment where business can create jobs; they wanted someone fighting for their job at their factory more concretely.”

Trump’s cheerleading may be prompting some consternation in the White House, where officials have long worked to claim credit themselves for a slow and steady recovery since the Great Recession, which bottomed out early during Obama’s tenure.

Rather than a 140-character tweet, the president delivered his assessment in a letter to Congress delivering the nearly 600-page annual report of his Council of Economic Advisers.

“Our economic progress over the past eight years has been nothing short of remarkable,” Obama wrote.

The report touted a turnaround from monthly job losses of 800,000 to what the administration regularly notes is a record streak of job creation, with 15.5 million jobs added since 2009.

“It's all too easy to, in retrospect, see that as something inevitable and natural that just happened, but it was anything but,” Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters this month.

Furman also suggested that consumer confidence was a lagging indicator.

“People are essentially voting when they go into a store or when they decide whether to buy a house, and they’re voting yes and voting their confidence in the economy,” he said.

Some of Obama’s efforts to tout economic successes backfired. In June 2010, Vice President Joe Biden heralded the start of “Recovery Summer” as infrastructure projects authorized by the 2009 stimulus were set to accelerate. The moniker was ridiculed by Republicans as the unemployment rate still hovered around 9.5%.

“One of the biggest communications challenges of the entire Obama administration was balancing the glimmers of good news with the hard economic reality the American people have felt,” said Bill Burton, a former Obama White House spokesman.

Trump is all but certain to encounter a similar challenge, he warned.

“Trump's electoral strength came from voters who supported President Obama but believed that Trump was better equipped than Hillary Clinton to better their economic fortunes. If he loses credibility on that front because he only tweets about small victories and doesn't achieve real economic gains, he is going to have a hard time putting together the same coalition of voters in 2020,” Burton said.

Zandi said that frustration from Obama’s team would be justified.

“When economists look back at this period 20, 30, 40 years from now, they’re going to get a lot of credit for it, because data doesn’t lie,” he said. “But 20, 30, 40 years from now is a long time.”

Times staff writer Jim Puzzanghera contributed to this report.

michael.memoli@latimes.com

For more White House coverage, follow @mikememoli on Twitter.

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