Trump aides and allies have told the president privately that he has no choice but to focus his campaign on rebuilding the economy, according to three people familiar with the discussions.
The president’s political advisers also say there’s reason to believe it’s a winning message. Recent campaign and public polling show Trump slightly outperforming likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on handling of the economy even as the president finds himself on shaky ground nationally and in battleground states less than six months before the election. On a conference call last week with surrogates, the Trump campaign cited new internal polling that showed Trump with a 15-point advantage over Biden on the economy in 17 states the campaign is targeting in November, according to a person familiar with the call.
“The one issue Trump really clobbers Biden on is the economy and so he’s got to stick with that message,” said Stephen Moore, a conservative economist who serves as an outside adviser to Trump. “He has to persuade people that his policies will work to get American businesses and jobs back.”
But Make America Great Again 2.0 may not work a second time. Calvin Coolidge was the last president to win as an incumbent during a recession — and that was in 1924.
History is full of those who lost. President Herbert Hoover ran on the slogan “prosperity is just around the corner” in 1932 during the Great Depression, but lost in a landslide to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ronald Reagan beat President Jimmy Carter in 1980 after asking voters: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” And Bill Clinton used “It’s the economy, stupid” to push President George H.W. Bush out of office after a single term.
“From the days of Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama, you don’t get reelected if there’s a recession,“ presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said. “Trump would be shattering precedent if he could win reelection when the economy is taking this sort of downturn on his watch.”
And despite Trump’s claims of a swift economic rebound starting mid-year, his hopes could be dashed if the virus returns in the coming months of reopening or spikes again in the fall as many public health officials predict.
Trump had expected to campaign on a list of what he claimed were his accomplishments, including a booming stock market, rising wages and job growth. He switched his slogan to Keep America Great. But the president’s campaign was transformed as the pandemic spread. Trump faced criticism that he downplayed the outbreak and failed to quickly get tests and medical supplies to states.
Instead, Trump began to focus on restoring the economy, pushing governors to reopen non-essential business even though most states had not yet met the White House benchmarks for easing social-distancing guidelines.
In online events, social media and interviews, the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee and White House aides boasted that the businessman-turned-president had once overseen the “greatest economy in the history of the world.”
“President Trump’s record of building the American economy to unprecedented heights before it was artificially interrupted is even more salient now,” said Sarah Matthews, a Trump campaign spokeswoman, in a statement. “He has been the jobs president and Americans will look to him and his proven success to restore the economy to greatness.”
While the campaign continues to attacks Biden on a variety of issues — his mental acuity, his stance toward economic rival China, alleged hypocrisy amid a sexual assault allegation — it has added criticism about the economy, too.
“If the election is a referendum on Trump’s response to the pandemic, he will lose,” said William Galston, an adviser to Clinton during the ’92 election who now serves as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “If the central question is the prospect for economic recovery looking forward to ’21 and ’22, his chances are better.”
The Trump campaign’s main economic attack on Biden is that as vice president to President Barack Obama, he oversaw the slowest economic recovery since World War II after the 2008 financial crisis. The campaign also accuses him of wanting to raise taxes and implement regulations it claims would hurt American businesses.
The Biden campaign says Trump badly misrepresents the former vice president’s record. They note Biden oversaw the implementation of a $787 billion economic stimulus package, which created between 2 million and 4.8 million full-time jobs, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.