By Byron York
“The recession talk in late 2018 got way, way out of hand,” New York Times economic reporter Neil Irwin tweeted a few days ago. Indeed it did.
Irwin’s tweet came shortly after the government released figures showing the economy grew at a 3.2% annual rate in the first three months of this year. The number was good by anyone’s measure, significantly outpacing predictions. And it raised a question: What about all that recession talk of the last few months? What was going on?
Certainly, there were some economists who looked at various indicators — housing, energy, the international economy — and feared an economic slowdown was on the way. But in the popular conversation — the world of columnists and cable TV talkers — much of the economic chatter was really about President Trump. A worsening economy, some said, would show how wrong the president’s policies have been and would be the worst possible news for his 2020 re-election bid.
“A recession is coming. Trump will make it so much worse,” announced The Washington Post on Dec. 23. A slowdown is “overdue,” columnist Catherine Rampell wrote, “and the eventual collapse may bear Trump’s fingerprints.”
“Trump and the slowing economy: A wounded tiger is a dangerous tiger,” read the headline of a column, also in the Post, by former Obama economic adviser Jared Bernstein on Nov. 21.
“Wall Street economists and, in fact, economists across the board are calling for a recession,” financial reporter Linette Lopez said on CNN on Dec. 30. “They see that a recession is coming in 2019 and 2020 ... It’s sad that we can’t trust the president to be able to control himself in the face of a slowing economy.”
Now, though, the case is a bit harder to make, with 3.2% growth, plus low unemployment, plus — perhaps most important — wage increases that have not been seen in years.
Still, the presidential campaign is underway, and Democrats will try to portray — actually, they’ll have to portray — the president’s policies as an economic mess. The question is whether it will work.
Republican strategists are of two minds. On one hand, some still bear the scars of the 1992 election, when Bill Clinton managed to convince voters that the economy, which was in the early stages of a recovery, was in desperate shape. The lesson: Creating a perception of the economy was more important than the economy itself.
“It’s not facts and stock market statistics,” said GOP strategist David Carney in an email exchange. “Clinton did a good job against us in 1992. All the economists said everything was on track to solid improvement, and they were right. Still, the economy was key — based on the recent past, not current or future.”
On the other hand, some Republicans believe it will be difficult for any Democrat — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, anyone — to talk down a healthy economy.
“We, of course, have no idea what the economy will be like in a year and a half,” said strategist Curt Anderson in another email exchange. “But if it stays similar to how it is now, the Democrats will not be successful in talking it down. We’ve done a fair amount of polling so far in 2019, and the voters are happy with the current economy, and are even somewhat bullish on their personal economic future. Arguing with the voters is a dumb strategy that has been tried and failed many times. I don’t recommend it.”
While an economic downturn would obviously hurt Trump, Anderson sees the possibility of another dynamic entirely.
“When the economy is good, voters don’t say that the economy is their No. 1 issue,” he explained. “We have several polls this year where the voters list the economy as their third- or fourth-most important issue, and that is because the voters feel like the economy is somewhere between good and really good. Often voters will migrate to other issues when the economy is good.”
In that rather ironic scenario, a good Trump economy could give voters the freedom to focus on things they don’t like about the president.
In any event, Trump’s job will be to convince voters not only that his economic policies are working, but that Democratic proposals — the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, tuition-free college and more — would destroy the economy that has gone well during the early Trump years.
So far, despite all the pessimistic talk, that’s not a hard argument to make. And if the indicators hold up, the president will hold a strong hand, whatever his real or perceived liabilities, in November 2020.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.