Politics

Trump is running out of time to craft an economic agenda for reelection as Biden gains ground

Key Points
  • President Trump has enjoyed a polling edge over Joe Biden on the economy, but that advantage is slipping away.
  • Biden is in the process of releasing a series of economic plans, while Trump's own campaign hasn't released a second-term economic agenda.
  • With just over 100 days to go before Nov. 3, time is running out for Trump to chart an economic course for his reelection effort.
US President Donald Trump speaks to the press in the Oval Office at the White House after receiving a briefing from top law enforcement officials on operations against the MS-13 gang in Washington, DC, on July 15, 2020.
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — There is one outlier amid all the gloom of President Donald Trump's cratering poll numbers this summer: Public approval of his handling of the economy. 

According to Real Clear Politics' polling average, voters currently disapprove by double digits of Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic, his handling of foreign policy and the general direction of the country. When it comes to the economy, though, even in the midst of a historically rapid recession and an unemployment rate of 11%, Trump remains above water.

But even that edge is disappearing, with just under four months until Election Day. New polling released Wednesday by CNBC/Change Research found that only 46% of likely voters approved of Trump's handling of the economy, versus 54% who disapproved.

The poll also showed a dramatic shift over the past two weeks in how independent voters grade the president's handling of the economy. In late June, the same poll showed Trump's economic approval ratings underwater by eight points with independents. Two weeks later, that deficit had swelled to a 28-point deficit, with 64% of independents telling pollsters they disapprove of how Trump is handling the economy.

Biden and his campaign strategists know the economy is Trump's traditional strong suit. So they're moving quickly to do something about it, by releasing a series of plans. The first is a "buy American" platform that takes the fight to Trump's economic nationalist turf. The second, released on Tuesday, is a green jobs plan. 

So far, Trump has struggled to respond to them. After the buy American plan was released last week, Trump claimed that Biden's proposal ripped off his own policies while also going too far left. Following Biden's Tuesday event, Trump convened the White House press and spent more than an hour reading a list of Biden's proposals aloud, inadvertently drawing more attention to his opponent's agenda than his own.

President Donald J. Trump stops to talk to reporters as he walks to board Marine One and depart from the South Lawn of the White House on Friday, July 10, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Trump's mixed-up messages are not isolated examples of the president getting caught flat-footed. Instead, they reflect a broader failure throughout Trump's political universe to craft an economic platform for the president to run for reelection on.

Such a plan could come from Trump himself, much like the bulk of his 2016 campaign economic platform did. Alternatively, it could be spearheaded by top White House economic advisors, like the massive 2017 Trump tax cut bill was. 

The third option is that an economic platform for Trump could come out of his reelection campaign itself. As recently as late May of this year, top strategists for Trump's campaign were reportedly working with the White House on an overhaul of the GOP's official platform to better fit Trump's priorities. 

"As a Republican, economic messaging is your bread and butter," said Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster who has closely studied what messages resonate most with moderate Republicans and independent voters. 

Republicans "might not always have the best answers on, say, the environment, but the economy is where they run the tables," Matthews said. Given that the public still gives Trump relatively high marks on economic policy, "why would you not embrace that, and run into that?" 

But with just over 100 days to go before Nov. 3, time is running out for Trump to chart an economic course for his reelection effort. 

Trump prefers culture wars

Trump has always approached economic policies not as part of a grand vision, but as a way to deliver on specific campaign promises he made to his supporters in 2016: Tax cuts, trade wars and deregulation. Taken together, these tactics came to define Trump's first-term economic agenda.

This time around, Trump is furious that, as he sees it, the coronavirus pandemic "stole" the prosperous economy that was his surest path to reelection. Determined to move on from the pandemic, Trump insists he and his administration have "done a great job," despite the current explosion of daily infections.

The closest Trump has come in recent months to laying out a second-term economic agenda was part of a response he gave earlier this month to his friend and Fox News host Sean Hannity. 

"What's your second-term agenda?" Hannity asked Trump in a phone interview.

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Highlights from President Trump's Mt. Rushmore address

After first pledging to "defeat the invisible enemy," one of the terms he uses for coronavirus, Trump said: "We are going to rebuild the economy, we're going to bring back jobs from all of these foreign lands that have stolen our jobs on horrible trade deals. We are going to continue to make great trade deals." At that point, Trump pivoted from the economy to the border wall. 

Given exchanges like that one, it's easy to see why Trump might prefer to focus on culture-war issues such as the Black Lives Matter protests and the removal of Confederate monuments.

"Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children," Trump said in a speech at Mount Rushmore over the Fourth of July that offered a preview of how he plans to frame the election. 

Earlier this month, Trump attacked a recent decision by NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at races, and he demanded that Bubba Wallace, the league's only full-time Black driver, apologize after NASCAR officials investigated a noose found in Wallace's garage.

Trump has hosted official White House events featuring police officers, called racial justice protesters "thugs" and encouraged violent responses to peaceful demonstrations. He signed an executive order increasing the penalty for vandalizing federal monuments in response to the toppling of statues featuring slave owners and Confederate generals.

On Tuesday night, Trump tweeted: "You & your children won't be SAFE in Biden's America, and neither will anyone else!" 

For Trump, this is all part of a wide-ranging effort to style himself as the candidate of "law and order," and Democrats as the party of lawlessness, crime and mayhem. Yet several Republican donors and strategists say Trump's pivot to law and order is a mistake, one that risks alienating voters the party needs if it hopes to build a winning coalition in November.

"Trump's a businessman first and foremost, and focusing on the economy is a pillar of Trump's success, along with judicial appointments and his America First agenda," said Dan Eberhart, a Texas-based Republican political donor and a Trump supporter. 

"This recent pivot to law and order and culture wars is ill-conceived and will ultimately not convince the pursuable centrist voters Trump needs to defeat Biden," Eberhart told CNBC. "Though it was just launched, it's already time for a U-turn." 

"The voters Trump is losing right now are white, college-educated men, the ones who actually respond best to economic messaging," said Matthews, the Republican pollster.

She explained that for the past four years, white college-educated men have been able to justify supporting Trump by ignoring his divisive and racist rhetoric in favor of pointing out how great his economic policies are.

"They'll say, 'Well, he tweets too much,' or 'I don't really agree with some of the things he says,' but then they always come back around to, 'Well, he's great on my taxes and my 401(k)s and my investments,'" she said.

"But now, by doubling down on this culture-war stuff and refusing to provide an economic road map for a second term, Trump is making it so that these same white, college-educated men can't claim anymore that they support Trump because they like his economic plans," she added. "He's forcing them out of his coalition by leaving them nothing to hold up as a reason to vote for him. "It's 'you're either with me for the culture wars, or there's nothing here for you.'"

US President Donald Trump arrives for the Independence Day events at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, July 3, 2020.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty images

Any potential Trump campaign U-turn would also be made more complicated by the president's ongoing refusal to fully address the deadly threat posed by the coronavirus.

"Trump can't really have a positive economic message until he gets a handle on the pandemic. But he lives in his own thought bubble, with magical thinking like that the virus is going to just disappear on its own, or that parents shouldn't worry about their kids getting sick," Matthews said.

"Out here in the real world, no one wants to do magical thinking about their kids and their health and their family's health," she added.

Confusion and division 

Another potential source of ideas for Trump's economic platform is his economic team at the White House, which has taken the lead on implementing Trump's first-term economic priorities.

But there are problems here, too. 

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President Trump announces Hong Kong Autonomy Act

There is an exodus underway among key members of Trump's economic team. In the past month alone, a half-dozen staffers have either left their positions or announced plans to leave. The most high-profile departure was that of Kevin Hassett, a former chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors who had returned to help oversee the coronavirus economic recovery plans.

Another significant departure was that of Bimal Patel, who served as assistant treasury secretary for financial institutions until the end of June. Most recently, Patel was the chief liaison between the Treasury Department and the thousands of banks and credit unions that made individual Paycheck Protection Program loans to small businesses. Should there be a second round of PPP loans later this summer, Patel will no longer be there to oversee the lending side of the massive program.

The rise in White House departures "reflects a great deal of confusion about the path going forward by the Republican economists there and the terrible situation we find ourselves in," said Bill Hoagland, a senior VP at the Bipartisan Policy Center, to the Washington Post. "It's a high level of frustration, especially at the career staff level."

Kevin Hassett, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, speaks to members of the media outside the White House in Washington, D.C.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Biden's rollout last week of his "buy American" plan highlighted some of the tensions inside the White House economic team. Specifically, the plan revived speculation about the fate of a proposed executive order to shift pharmaceutical and medical supply production back into the United States. Drafted several months ago by hawkish White House trade advisor Peter Navarro, the executive order stalled after it encountered opposition from the more laissez-faire faction within Trump's economic team. 

It didn't help that Steve Bannon, Trump's former advisor, publicly praised the Biden plan, noting that the vice president "has very smart people around him, particularly on the economic side." 

Another symptom of the dysfunction within the White House economic team is the failure so far to lay out a comprehensive plan, or even a set of consistent principles, to guide the federal response to the economic devastation wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, the administration has reacted to historic job losses and business closures with a series of ad hoc recovery bills, the fourth of which will be debated in Washington this month. 

With a week or so left before negotiations begin in earnest, it remains unclear where the president stands on key issues in the next round of funding, such as another round of small business loans. Congressional negotiators have also previously complained of conflicting messages coming from different White House advisors. 

Trump has signaled that he favors more direct payments to individuals. Yet most experts chalk this up to election-year considerations, rather than to any specific idea that Trump has about how to address the pandemic's ongoing economic fallout.

With the White House focused on more immediate problems, the task of crafting a cohesive economic message for the president would typically fall to the campaign, whose leaders bear responsibility for making sure that the issues important to voters don't get lost amid the daily news cycles.

But so far Trump's campaign team has not produced a forward-looking economic plan.

No movement from the campaign

Given the Trump campaign's well-known emphasis on digital fundraising, data and organizing, one might think staffers would also prioritize keeping the Trump campaign reelection website up-to-date. 

On the contrary, it looks as if it's been at least a year since the Trump campaign updated the bullet points on its "Economy and Jobs" issue page. Other Trump issue pages, including those for hot-button issues such as "Law and Justice" and "Health Care," are equally skimpy and out of date. 

CNBC reached out to the Trump campaign to ask whether there was somewhere else on the website that had a more up-to-date list of Trump's accomplishments or maybe even a second-term agenda. 

In response, deputy national press secretary Ken Farnaso emailed CNBC a boilerplate statement the campaign had previously given to other news outlets when they asked about Trump's campaign agenda.

The statement read, in part: "The best is yet to come. Whether it be keeping taxes low for Americans, renegotiating failed trade deals like NAFTA, protecting and enforcing immigration laws, creating an economic renaissance with record low unemployment rates, or strengthening our military, 'Promises Made, Promises Kept' isn't just a motto, it's a bold track record of success." 

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about the U.S. economy during a campaign event at McGregor Industries, a metal works plant that manufactures stairs and stair railings, in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, July 9, 2020.
Tom Brenner | Reuters

CNBC also reached out to the Biden campaign for this story. Trump's "presidency has thrown American manufacturing into a recession, killed tens of millions of jobs, and sent the strong economy he inherited from the Obama-Biden Administration into a full-on meltdown," said Biden's director of rapid response, Andrew Bates. "Joe Biden's vision for reinvigorating American industry, building our economy back better, and restoring the middle class is the antithesis of Donald Trump's failures." 

One reason the Trump campaign's lack of an economic message is particularly galling, say Republicans, is because it would be so easy to put one together. 

"Even though the economy is struggling, there's still room for a positive economic message this year," said Matthews, the founder of Bellwether Research and Consulting in Alexandria, Virginia. Unlike 2008, she said, when the housing collapse tore through middle-class communities, "many white-collar workers are doing OK, and their jobs are not in jeopardy." 

Matthews also pointed out that the stories behind the trillions of dollars in coronavirus recovery funds Republicans have already distributed this year basically amount to ready-made campaign ads for GOP candidates. 

US President Donald Trump shows a signed Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 24, 2020.
Olivier Douliery | AFP | Getty Images

Eberhart, who is CEO of Canary LLC, one of the nation's largest oilfield services providers, said much the same thing as Matthews.

"I wish Karl Rove would tap [Trump campaign manager] Brad Parscale on the shoulder and tell him to highlight the businesses that have been helped by the PPP," he said.

Right now, he added, "You've practically got to use a magnifying glass to find 'feel good' stories of jobs the PPP has helped save." 

A message about how the GOP is helping small businesses would also transfer easily to down-ballot races, where it could benefit vulnerable Senate incumbents. 

"There's no message better for an incumbent than what they're doing to help their constituents economically," said Matthews.