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Dissonance grows between economic performance, Trump approval

President Donald Trump walks on stage to speak at a fundraiser at Cipriani in New York, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017. Trump is attending a trio of fundraisers during his day in New York. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The U.S. economy experienced another month of better-than-expected job growth in November, adding 228,000 jobs as the unemployment rate held steady at a 16-year low of 4.1 percent, but polls suggest President Donald Trump is not reaping much benefit from overseeing an increasingly vigorous economy.

The White House welcomed the data released by the Department of Labor Friday, noting that the manufacturing sector in particular has expanded steadily since Trump took office in January and applauding the president’s “bold economic vision.”

“As we continue to unleash the American economy from unnecessary regulation and taxes, we look forward to seeing more reports like this, showing a healthy and thriving jobs market for the American people,” said Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.

The unemployment rate has fallen by .7 percentage points in 2017 as the economy added nearly 2 million jobs, down slightly from the 2.08 million jobs created in the first 11 months of 2016.

The economy grew at an annual rate of more than 3 percent in the second and third quarters of 2017, the first back-to-back quarters with GDP growth that high since 2014. Consumer confidence is at its highest level since November 2000, and the stock market has soared since the 2016 election with the Dow Jones Industrial Average up 6,000 points, breaking daily records more than 80 times.

At the same time, President Trump’s approval rating has wallowed in the mid-to-low 30s in many polls. A Pew Research Center survey released this week found 32 percent of Americans approve of his performance. The latest Gallup poll puts him at 36 percent, and a Quinnipiac University poll conducted over the weekend had him at 35 percent among registered voters.

On Friday, Trump celebrated a Morning Consult/Politico poll that found his approval rating at 45 percent, tweeting “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Though that was Trump’s highest rating in that poll since September, the same survey found 54 percent of voters believe he is sexist and 47 percent say he is racist.

When asked specifically about Trump’s performance on economic issues, voters tend to give him higher marks. He is currently averaging 45 percent approval on the economy, according to RealClearPolitics.

Polls suggest the public is growing increasingly optimistic about the state of the economy. The latest Investor’s Business Daily poll found 53 percent of Americans believe the economy is improving, up from 49 percent in December 2016. The same poll showed Trump’s overall approval rating at 36 percent and approval on the economy at 40 percent.

A CNN poll released last month showed 68 percent of respondents believed the economy is in good shape, the highest since before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but only 36 percent approved of Trump’s performance as president.

Experts are unsurprised that a strong job market and a surging economy have not translated into higher approval ratings for the president. They point to a lack of legislative achievements, the constant distractions provided by Trump’s Twitter feed, and the fact that things were already improving under President Obama.

“A lot of people figure the economy is doing okay, but it was doing okay when Trump came into office,” said Gary Nordlinger, a political consultant and an adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. “So what has he done that he deserves credit for?... What can you point to and say, thank god for Donald Trump or this wouldn’t have happened?”

Corporations may be excited by widespread deregulation and impending tax cuts, but wages are still stagnant, health care is still expensive, and a large chunk of the population hates Trump so much that they will not give him credit even when he does deserve it.

“Part of it might be that a lot of people attributed the economy to President Obama and what he did…. Trump hasn’t really done anything big on the legislative side,” said Tom Whalen, a professor at Boston University and author of “JFK and His Enemies: A Portrait of Power.”

Trump’s own campaign rhetoric may also be coming back to haunt him, as he often declared the unemployment rate to be a hoax in 2016 when it was only slightly higher than it is now.

“I think people are very skeptical of the numbers,” Whalen said.

According to Stephanie Martin, a professor of corporate communication and public affairs at Southern Methodist University, a dissonance between candidate Trump’s “forgotten man” stump speeches and President Trump’s post-election focus on the record stock market could be dampening enthusiasm.

“He talks about the Dow Jones average and how Wall Street is doing as though that is the economy…,” she said. “That is an extraordinary move for a president who ran demonizing Wall Street and Goldman Sachs and telling blue collar workers that he was going to take it to Wall Street and do things differently.”

Still, Martin suggested public satisfaction with the economy is helping Trump more than it seems.

“The other way to look at it is, it’s the economy that’s keeping his approval rating from going down into the 20s,” she said.

Democrats say the controversies Trump regularly stirs and his handling of various crises have prevented him from capitalizing on solid economic data.

“He gets in the way of those numbers,” said Arne Arnesen, a New Hampshire-based progressive radio host. “Let me tell you what gets in the way: Roy Moore and sex. Let me tell you what gets in the way: moving the capital [of Israel] to Jerusalem. Let me tell you what gets in the way: North Korea and a nuclear bomb…. He doesn’t have time to celebrate all this economic good news because he’s starting all of these fires.”

According to Whalen, Trump has “shot himself in the foot” by veering from topic to topic and drawing attention to things like NFL players protesting the national anthem instead of sticking to a disciplined message.

“He’s so maddeningly all over the map that people aren’t just going to focus on one or two things like under a normal presidency,” he said.

Heading into 2018 with control of Congress on the line in the midterm elections, Republicans and the president have placed their bets on a tax reform package that they believe will pump economic growth up higher and deliver more jobs and higher wages to American workers.

“We’ve seen the lowest unemployment rate since 2001, we’ve seen two quarters of 3 percent growth,” Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, said Wednesday. “You supercharge the economy with lower taxes, that’s good for everybody.”

Versions of the bill have been passed by the House and the Senate, and a conference committee is now working to reconcile differences between them. Assuming Republicans can pass the legislation in some form—“at this stage, they have no choice,” Nordlinger said—many of its changes would likely take effect next year.

Public opinion on the bill is so far overwhelmingly negative, but Republicans expect that will change if people start seeing less money withheld from their paychecks in January. One potential hiccup for Democrats strategizing for 2018 is that experts say its biggest positive impact will be seen in the early years.

The conservative Tax Foundation predicts the Senate bill would result in 3.2 percent growth in 2018, with growth settling in between 2 and 2.5 percent after that. Goldman Sachs analysts estimated it would add about .3 percentage points to GDP in 2018 and 2019, but it would have minimal or even negative effects in 2020 and beyond.

While Republican incumbents will likely be touting jobs and GDP numbers on the campaign trail, some Democrats see little reason for concern about their economic messaging.

“As of right now, I think it’ll be very easy to point back to 2016 and show that job growth was actually bigger,” Neil Sroka, communications director for progressive political action committee Democracy for America, said.

Polls show many in the middle class believe tax reform will benefit the wealthy and corporations more than it does them, and the argument that this was a giveaway to the rich instead of what Trump billed it as could resonate.

“The most effective economic message is, you didn’t benefit, they blew up the deficit, and they’re going to cut any kind of assistance you might get,” Arnesen said. “It’s a trifecta of failure.”

Democrats will need to communicate that message more effectively than they have in recent election cycles, though.

“The Democrats need to come up with a very good message that appeals to the working class and the middle-middle class,” Nordlinger said.

If Trump’s popularity stays in the 30s, Democrats will try to tie every GOP candidate to him, and Martin said Republicans are leaving a door open for them with tax reform.

“Democrats are going to have to break through with a message that says Donald Trump and the Republicans ran on a message that said he was going to drain the swamp and instead x, y, and z happened,” she said. “Tax cuts for the wealthy, insurance taken away from 13 million people, and income inequality rising at record levels. They would have to create a message about broken promises.”

If the economy does continue to improve, Sroka suggested other concerns could rise to the surface.

“The real question in 2018…is, ‘How has your life demonstrably improved over the time Donald Trump has been in office?’” he said.

Uncertainty about international affairs and doubts about the Trump team’s ability to handle challenges at home and abroad could be areas where the president is more vulnerable.

“There are a lot of other things beyond the economy that people judge their president by,” Sroka said.

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