WASHINGTON ― President-elect Donald Trump will not move into the White House for another few weeks, but that hasn’t stopped him from boasting about positive new economic data.
Writing on Twitter this week, Trump focused on recent gains in consumer confidence, holiday shopping and the value of the stock market.
True to form, Trump exaggerated the numbers: Holiday shopping is expected to reach $656 billion, not $1 trillion, and consumer confidence is reaching a 13-year high, not a 15-year high.
The tweets illustrate what we already knew about Trump ― that he’s happy to hold up relatively innocuous economic data and claim that it’s proof of his greatness.
As last month’s Carrier deal showed, that quality can be a political boon. And President Barack Obama’s disdain for this kind of salesmanship may have undermined his own efforts to strengthen the economy.
The same habit could set Trump up for political trouble down the line, though.
Trump may be quick to take credit for rosy economic indicators now. But Democrats will be eager to tie him to any disappointing outcomes that take hold in the coming years.
In fact, Trump’s grandiose promises to bring back jobs may make his political fortunes especially vulnerable in the event of lackluster economic performance in the future, according to Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a former economic adviser for Vice President Joe Biden.
“Promising things you cannot do is ultimately going to disappoint constituents,” Bernstein said, citing Trump’s vows to bring back coal mining jobs that in reality have largely disappeared for good.
Julian Zelizer, a Princeton political scientist, said the negative impact could be greatest among Democrats who voted for Trump.
“If he can’t deliver, it can hurt with voters who were Democratic until now,” Zelizer said.
He is inheriting an economy as different from the one Obama inherited as night is to day.
Jared Bernstein, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
Trump’s plan to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure in particular may fall short of expectations, since the fine print shows it would include a lot of tax breaks for private investment in projects that would be occurring anyway, Bernstein warned.
“The ultimate fiscal impact of Trump’s economic plan may be a lot less jolting than markets expect,” he said.
And unlike Obama, who could always note that he inherited one of the worst economic crises in American history from President George W. Bush, Trump has no such negative point of comparison.
For example, when Obama took office in January 2009, the same Consumer Confidence Index Trump is now touting was the lowest it had been since its inception in 1967. The increases in the past two months have only pushed it to a 13-year high thanks to the steady gains the index registered during Obama’s eight years in office.
In that sense, Trump might actually want to say “Thanks Obama,” rather than thanking himself.
“It was on an improving trajectory before Trump got elected,” Bernstein said. “He is inheriting an economy as different from the one Obama inherited as night is to day.”
Then there’s the matter of whether the economy’s performance one way or another will actually help the ordinary people Trump promised to lift up. Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, sees Trump’s tweets as an opportunity to highlight the way his economic policies are likely to benefit only the very rich.
“He campaigned on the economy, so he is going to be held accountable for how his policies benefit Wall Street and giant international corporations at the expense of the American worker,” Green said.
But John Feehery, president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and a former spokesman for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), argued that it is wise for Trump to take credit for the economy while circumstances allow it.
“Presidents always get the blame when things don’t go well, so he is smart to try to take credit while the getting is good,” Feehery said.
What’s more, Trump’s followers have such strong faith in him, it’s not clear that a lousy economy would undermine his popular support, argued Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“We’re so polarized, it will only catch up with him among those who don’t like him anyway,” Sabato predicted.
“I honestly think if he tweeted the moon is made of green cheese, his followers would ask for a slice,” he added. “It is blind loyalty that I have not seen in my lifetime.”