Americans sweet on economy, sour on Trump

Justin Sink and Shobhana Chandra
Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is breaking the convention that when Americans feel good about the economy they credit their leader.

Never in recent history have consumers been so buoyant about economic prospects and their financial fortunes while at the same time so down on the president. The gap has emerged in an administration marked by chaos, tumult in its senior ranks and repeated political firestorms, often ignited by the president’s own Twitter posts and public ad libs.

Americans “are living in a two-track world” where they “are separating their pocketbooks from what they see in Washington,” said Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University.

“There’s a sense of confidence the underlying dynamics of the economy in which they live is pretty good,” he said. “We’re at a point where a lot of people don’t feel that’s necessarily connected to what the president is doing.”

Trump’s approval rating averaged about 39 percent in 2017 according to Gallup, the lowest in the 72-year history of the benchmark survey for a president in his first year in office. Americans’ confidence, meanwhile, averaged a 17-year high last year, according to the University of Michigan consumer sentiment index.

The wrong track: Despite Americans’ optimism about the economy, they aren’t happy with the broader direction of the country. Sixty percent said the nation is on the wrong track in a CBS News poll taken Jan. 13-16, about the same as the 61 percent who said so in the same poll a year earlier, just before Trump was inaugurated.

Trends compiled by Bloomberg show the gap between consumer sentiment and perceptions of the president widened in late 2017 to the most since at least 1978, when the monthly confidence series began.

The latest surveys show consumer sentiment slipped to a six-month low of 94.4 in January, down from 95.9 in December while Trump’s approval rating dropped to 36 percent for the week of Jan. 15-21.

The last comparable disparity between consumer sentiment and presidential popularity was the fall of 2006, when former President George W. Bush was grappling with the Iraqi insurgency and North Korea’s first test detonation of a nuclear device. Meanwhile, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was setting then-record highs.

Still, the largest gap between approval rating and consumer sentiment for Bush — in January of 2007, after Democrats rode a wave election to take control of both chambers in Congress — was smaller than that for Trump in October and November. The job approval ratings compiled by Bloomberg are based on Gallup’s last completed poll for each month.

Republicans are fearful of a similar wipeout in the upcoming 2018 midterms — that the president’s sagging popularity could threaten their control of Congress.

Majorities of voters see Trump as dishonest, lacking leadership skills, and not caring about average Americans, according to a Quinnipiac poll released Jan. 10. And fresh questions over his suitability for office — prompted by former aides’ criticism in a recently published book — as well as controversial comments about immigrants from Haiti and Africa, have drowned out White House messaging about the strong economy, legislative priorities, and the recently passed tax cuts.

Trump blame: Trump, for his part, appears to recognize the gap — though he’s laid blame for his problems on the media.

“Do you notice the Fake News Mainstream Media never likes covering the great and record setting economic news, but rather talks about anything negative or that can be turned into the negative,” he tweeted last Tuesday.

Earlier that week, Trump tweeted commentary from Fox News arguing that he was “not getting the credit he deserves for the economy.”

There are plenty of reasons for consumers’ optimism: a solid job market underscored by the lowest unemployment rate since 2000, strong household balance sheets backed by a soaring stock market and home-price appreciation, cheap gasoline, low borrowing costs and low inflation.

One explanation for the perception gap could be that Americans attribute the robust economy not to Trump but to his predecessor, former President Barack Obama. While two out of three voters surveyed by Quinnipiac say the nation’s economy is “excellent” or “good,” 49 percent give the credit to Obama and just 40 percent say Trump is more responsible.

“Obviously, a strong economy can help a president, but it’s not the only thing people use to assess his effectiveness,” said Emily Sydnor, a political science professor at Southwestern University. Trump’s lagging approval ratings could be attributed to voters giving credit to Obama for the economy, Sydnor said, but are also reminiscent of other times when voters have soured on the occupant of the Oval Office.

“Trump has a good economy, but he also is under investigation — like (Richard) Nixon — and facing a foreign threat — like (Harry) Truman or (George) W. (Bush) — thanks to his Twitter feud with Kim Jong Un,” Sydnor said. “Add to that minimal effort to appeal to a broad-based, unified America, and there’s only so much a strong economy can do.”

Princeton’s Zelizer said voters may also recognize that Trump “started at an enviable point,” particularly compared to Obama, who began his presidency in the depths of recession.

That period also saw some of the largest discrepancies between consumer sentiment and presidential popularity — just in reverse. Shortly after his inauguration in 2009, Obama posted approval ratings of 60 percent or higher even though the economy was still reeling from the 2008 financial collapse. It marked the biggest spread since 1991, when President George H.W. Bush enjoyed booming popularity during the beginning of the Gulf War despite a recession.