It may have been the most normal 22 minutes of the Trump presidency.
A White House number cruncher armed with charts and piles of data appeared before reporters to tell the tale of a gangbuster economy and credit the sitting president’s policies.
Kevin Hassett, the cheery chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, had quite a story to tell after being asked by White House press secretary Sarah Sanders to explain “America’s economic winning streak.” He reached beyond standard growth and jobs numbers to invoke a roaring Trump boom, enthusing over capital investment, business optimism, capital goods shipments and the purchasing managers index.
“Sarah can tell you that I’ve been pushing her to let me show these slides for quite a while,” he beamed.
History suggests that such good news ought to translate into a political as well as an economic winning streak for the GOP heading into nettlesome midterm elections and even a glide path for a carefree re-election for President Donald Trump himself.
Yet, something is not quite adding up.
A president who claims he is responsible for the best economy in American history is sitting on historically low and worsening approval ratings. A new CNN/SSRS poll put him at 36%, down six points in a month. Democrats appear to have a better than even chance of winning the House and some pundits think the Senate might even be in play.
The President has no doubt he can buck the ill omens.
“The Economy is soooo good, perhaps the best in our country’s history (remember, it’s the economy stupid!), that the Democrats are flailing & lying like CRAZY! Phony books, articles and T.V. ‘hits’ like no other pol has had to endure-and they are losing big,” Trump tweeted on Monday.
It would be one thing if the economy were all the president was tweeting about. But the constant whirl of disorder that he drums up often drowns out his arguments about jobs and growth – as became clear as soon as Sanders took over the podium from Hassett. Normalcy evaporated and the acrimony and sheer strangeness of the everyday story of the Trump administration took over.
The character issue
She was forced to say whether Vice President Mike Pence would take a lie detector test to prove his loyalty – a question that would be outlandish in any other White House.
Sanders was asked to explain Trump’s threat to turn the criminal investigative instruments of his administration on the author of an anonymous New Times op-ed that panned his leadership.
And she said she would have to keep reporters “posted” on whether Trump might consider suing Bob Woodward, whose devastating insider account of his White House is published Tuesday and argues that the president is detached from reality and has prompted top aides to try to protect America from the damage he could wreak.
The questions underlined how the turmoil in the White House, most of which can be traced directly to Trump, has led to a crisis of trust and authority in the administration and is muffling GOP attempts to highlight sweeping tax cuts and deregulation as the root of economic strength.
In the moment, the brouhaha directly undermined attempts by Sanders to project the kind of smoothly oiled efficiency that Trump claims characterizes his operation, as she pushed for the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and cranked up White House warnings about the monster hurricane lining up the Carolinas for a direct hit late this week.
Even the act of holding a briefing appeared to be an attempt to stress normalcy after a wild week of claims of administration dysfunction – though it forced White House aides to wipe off the podium, in a reminder of how rarely it has been used this summer.
In the longer term, the furor facing Sanders underlined one of the central themes of the midterm campaign so far – that the humming economy should have put Trump in a far better position than he is in currently. There is also the related unknown of whether his outbursts and erratic nature are scaring off some voters who otherwise might be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt if they feel good about the economy.
Trump’s habitual overshadowing of his own optimum message was also evident when Hassett was forced to concede that the president had not told the truth when he tweeted Monday that the GDP rate is higher than the unemployment rate for the first time in 100 years.
“What is true is that it’s the highest in 10 years. And at some point, somebody probably conveyed it to him, adding a zero to that, and they shouldn’t have done that,” Hassett said.
The tweet might seem like a small thing – given the blizzard of incorrect claims made by Trump. But it plays directly into one of his biggest vulnerabilities, the questions of character that are exacerbated by the constant White House meltdowns.
“It makes the story about the ‘are you honest and trustworthy piece’ and not the ‘how is the economy doing piece’ … We know that is not the ground you want to be on,” said Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster and Washington Examiner columnist on CNN.
“By making it about some fact that is not a fact, it takes it away from his economic message.”
Liabilities for the president and Republicans were laid bare by the latest CNN/SSRS poll published on Monday.
Trump clearly is not yet getting the full credit for healthy jobs and economic growth numbers. The survey shows that 69% of voters describe the nation’s economy as good. But only 49% say they approve of the way Trump is managing the economy.
Inside Trump’s wider drop in approval, his rating among independents tumbled from 47% to 31% since August, the kind of number that could do real damage when voters go to the polls.
The president is also taking on heavy water in other areas of performance.
Only 32% feel Trump is honest and trustworthy, a similar proportion of voters are proud to have him as president and only 30% think he will unite the country.
The drop in Trump’s approval rating in the CNN poll is mirrored in other recent major opinion surveys and therefore should worry Republicans who hope that the strong economy can halt a Democratic charge in November.
That’s because data shows that declines in a president’s approval rating typically respond to a drop in the national vote for his party in the House of Representatives.
If that pattern holds, Trump’s approval rating would have to climb back into the low 40s for Republicans to have a realistic chance of stopping Democrats from winning the net 23 seats they need to take the House. For the GOP to have a 50% chance of keeping the House it will likely need to rise into the mid-40s.
Trump’s best hope of avoiding a nightmare scenario of a Democratic House that could cripple his administration may lie in a broadening national appreciation of his economic leadership and a bumper turnout from his loyal grassroots base.
He will have been encouraged by a Washington Post story Monday reporting that blue collar employment, typically prevalent in Trump country, is expanding more quickly than service sector jobs.
But right now, that kind of success seems to be overshadowed by the president’s failure to make the economy the dominant theme coming out of his chaotic administration.
If he is to confound history in November, that will have to change. Hassett’s upbeat messaging is a good place to start.
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct name of the purchasing managers index.