In 2016, the U.S. economy served as a punching bag for then-candidate Donald Trump. Today, it has become a lifeline for an otherwise embattled presidency.
Trump has increasingly grabbed for that line, touting low unemployment, record high stock market values and healthy economic growth rates in speeches and his ubiquitous tweets.
Reactions from voters, even some who are otherwise skeptical of the president, show how the economy’s strong performance has bolstered Trump’s standing.
At a recent focus group that Peter Hart, a longtime Democratic pollster, conducted in Wilmington, N.C., for Emory University, even participants who voted for Trump last year sharply criticized his administration, calling it “chaotic” “embarrassing” and disappointing.
Of the five Trump voters among the dozen participants, only one still strongly supported the president. The harsh critiques from the other four followed a pattern that Hart found earlier this year, illustrating how a segment of Trump voters, mostly college-educated and middle- to upper-income whites, has turned against him because of his behavior.
But when the subject turned to the economy, opinions of Trump noticeably warmed.
Trump wants to “bring the economy jobs — infrastructure, construction,” said Katrina Harrell, a 38-year-old black self-employed businesswoman who voted for Hillary Clinton last year. Harrell was extremely critical of almost all other aspects of the administration, but on the economy she gave Trump credit.
“I think those are good moves,” she said. “I mean, that's what he knows — business.”
Another Clinton voter, Jacob Eubank, a 35-year-old, white administrator at the University of North Carolina campus in Wilmington, shared a similar view.
“I think he's good just for the stock market,” he said.
Michael Leimone, a 41-year-old cook who voted for Trump last year but now finds him disappointing, praised his economic record.
“I think he's turning it in the right direction,” he said.
Comments like that exasperate Democratic officials, who say that there’s little evidence to back Trump’s claim that his election has worked a turnaround in the U.S. economy.
The unemployment rate, for example, has dropped steadily for more than eight years. It was at 5% or below throughout 2016 — at a time when Trump sometimes said official unemployment statistics were fake — and the downward trend continued this year. Unemployment now sits at just over 4%.
Similarly, the stock market was on the rise for almost all of President Obama’s eight years in office and has continued to tick upward since Trump’s election.
Moreover, few of Trump’s economic policies have actually been adopted.
His trade policies mostly remain as rhetoric. He withdrew from a proposed 12-nation trade agreement in Asia, but it had not yet taken effect. Other deals that he had lambasted remain intact.
The tax cut bill making its way through Congress would be the first major piece of economic legislation to pass in his tenure.
The biggest policy steps from his administration have mostly involved efforts to roll back federal environmental regulations, but even on that front, many of the largest efforts remain works in progress.
Trump would not be the first president to gain politically from a good economy that he didn’t fully bring about — or suffer from a bad one that wasn’t his fault.
Presidential popularity typically rises and falls with economic performance even though economists generally agree that presidents have limited ability to affect the short-term ups and downs of the business cycle.
Right now, Trump is clearly on the winning side of the economic statistics.
Polling by numerous organizations shows that the sentiments expressed in Hart’s focus group are widespread: While some Americans support Trump all the way and others loathe everything about him, a significant segment expresses different views depending on which aspect of the president they’re focused on.
His behavior — his tweets, his public quarrels, his racial divisiveness — all draw sharply negative responses. So, too, does his handling of healthcare.
But on the economy, Americans tend to give Trump higher marks. In Gallup’s surveys, for example, the share of voters who approve of Trump’s handling of the economy has run about 8 percentage points ahead of the share who approve of his overall job performance.
White House aides do what they can to bolster the message that Trump should get credit for good economic times.
In a tweet on Saturday, for example, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders declared that “if you thought 2017 economy was surprisingly good, just wait for 2018,” linking to a report on a forecast by Goldman Sachs, the New York-based investment and securities firm.
Ironically, one of the major risks that the firm included in the forecast was Trump’s trade policy, particularly his threat to end the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada. If negotiations now underway don’t succeed in keeping the deal largely intact, it could significantly hurt economic growth next year, the forecast said.
That possibility points to a potential downside for Trump: Sooner or later, the economy, which has been growing for nearly nine years, will sour.
If the political prop of a good economy disappears, it’s hard to know how much lower Trump’s standing with voters might drop. Already, despite the good economic statistics, his job approval sits at a historically low level for a president in his first year.
If a downturn happens on his watch, Trump would have trouble persuading voters to blame the problems on his predecessors, having so forcefully claimed credit for the economy’s positive performance.
For now, that’s a problem for the future. Faced with a multitude of challenges elsewhere, Trump is happy to proclaim what he recently called the “great American comeback.”
And the economic boost has helped prompt at least some voters to give him the benefit of the doubt.