President Trump’s job approval rating hasn’t been particularly consistent since he took office except in one respect: he has never crossed 50%, never had a majority of Americans who approved of his presidency – in full. Voters have consistently voiced that the economic performance of the country is good, and it’s this that causes some voters to say that they think Trump is doing a good job but that Trump is not a good president.
Back in February, the consensus was the American economy was as good as it had been in decades. Americans routinely assign credit for the economy to the president even though the president doesn’t really control the economy. Even though Americans don’t like how Donald Trump has handled the coronavirus pandemic, they like him on the economy. They just don’t like him personally.
This raises a really important question: does death of the author apply to a sitting president?
This is a question that hasn’t really been part of the conversation before. Under Presidents Clinton and Obama, Democrats and further leftists were more inclined to like their personalities than their policies. Republicans generally liked President George W. Bush’s policies and personality – in fact, his “guy you’d get a beer with” personality (despite Bush, like Trump, being a teetotaler) was often cited as the reason he won the 2000 primary and a major advantage over 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry.
Speaking of 2004, there were certainly Democrats who backed Bush over Kerry because the country was doing well economically, and they credited that to Bush. These voters, though, didn’t pick Bush in spite of his personality. Bush was approachable, even to his political opponents. At this point in 2004, Bush’s approval rating was 49.9%. Trump’s is 43.9%.
The economy had been rocked by accounting scandals including the famous Enron scandal, which Bush had loose ties to, earlier in the first Bush term. But the economy by 2004 was in much better shape, and personal consumption was higher in 2004 than at any point in the nineties. Bush’s opponents raised questions about the Iraq War, but it wouldn’t be until 2005 – after Bush secured re-election – that Americans began to really doubt the war, and not until 2007 that a sustained majority of Americans opposed it.
The economy in 2020, in contrast, has so far suffered catastrophe after catastrophe. Unemployment is high, personal spending is down, and retailers are bracing for what could be a rough holiday season. But this is all, somehow, the coronavirus’s fault, and despite Americans thinking Trump isn’t handling the coronavirus pandemic well they think he is handling the economy well, which seems contradictory.
This might be why the New York Times‘ release of the president’s tax returns could be more important than some have suggested. It’s been commonly brought up in liberal circles that the president’s tax returns won’t impact the election because his authoritarian actions haven’t impacted them (although voters do seem to like Trump more when he isn’t so openly racist, with his approval rating tracking closely to whether race relations are a hot topic in the news). But it may be that Americans think the economy is doing well under Trump because it has to be, since Trump is such a very good businessman. This tautology, that having a businessman in charge means the economy is doing well because businessmen know the economy, is a powerful idea in American politics. It’s perhaps the best explanation for why Americans dislike Trump’s behavior but like his actions. The economy seemed to be doing well prior to the pandemic, and that surely was the result of the president being so good at business and not because he mostly ignored the economy, allowing the growth under the Obama administration to continue.