WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has a new pitch to voters for this fall: Trust me.
As the economy faces a once-in-a-century recession, with more than 38 million people out of work, Trump is increasingly talking up a future recovery that probably won't materialize until after the November election. He's asking voters to look past the pain being felt across the nation and give him another four-year term on the promise of an economic comeback in 2021.
“It’s a transition to greatness,” Trump says over and over, predicting a burgeoning economy come the fall. “You’re going to see some great numbers in the fourth quarter, and you’re going to end up doing a great year next year."
His chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, echoes the wait-until-next-year sentiment, holding out hope for a “big bang 2021.”
It's a delayed-reward tactic Trump was using long before the global pandemic gut-punched the country. He has turned to it with new urgency as the coronavirus has robbed him of the booming economy that was to be the core of his reelection message.
Trump had already pledged to finally release a Republican health care plan after the polls closed — despite having served more than three years in office — along with a postelection tax cut and a “Phase 2” trade deal with China.
Now, Trump is making the case to voters that if he helped bolster the economy once, he can do it again.
“We built the greatest economy in the world," Trump says frequently. "I’ll do it a second time.”
It's not just next year that will be a mystery to voters on Election Day. Trump and his team have been talking up the fourth quarter — October through December — but economic reports on that period won't be released until 2021. Preliminary figures for the third quarter will be released Oct. 29, days before the Nov. 3 election. And unemployment could still be in double-digit territory by Election Day, White House economist Kevin Hassett and Eric Rosengren, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston said in television interviews Sunday.
“Unfortunately, I think it's likely to be double-digit unemployment through the end of this year,” Rosengren told CBS' “Face the Nation.” To bring back the low jobless levels seen at the end of last February, he said it would probably take a vaccine or “other medical innovations that make it much less risky to go out."
Still, Trump and his campaign are hoping they can convince the public that Trump, not Democrat Joe Biden, is the candidate who can turn things around, even as they push the recovery timeline into next year.
“The president has a clear record of building the economy to unprecedented heights before it was artificially interrupted by the coronavirus, and they know he will build it a second time,” said Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh.
Economists, however, warn that the “snap back” Trump's advisers have been talking up is unlikely, given the severity of the recession. It will take years for the economy to recover, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Polling data suggests Trump has some work to do to persuade Americans that all will be well next year.
Americans are split on whether they think the economy will improve (41%) or worsen (40%) over the coming year, according to a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Their opinions differ based on their politics. A majority of Republicans (62%) think the economy will get better in the coming year, while a majority of Democrats (56%) think it will get worse.
The poll finds that only 49% of Americans now approve of how Trump is handling the economy, compared with 56% in March, though the numbers remain split largely on party lines.
While a majority of Americans in households that lost a job do think it’s at least probable that the job will return, 70% now describe the state of the nation’s economy as poor, versus just 29% who say it’s good — down from 67% in January.
Trump has been encouraging states to begin easing restrictions and reopening their economies. But that doesn't necessarily mean jobs will return. While most of those who say they got a haircut at least monthly before the outbreak or shopped regularly in person for nonessential items would definitely or probably do so in the next few weeks if they were allowed, Americans may be wary to return to life as normal.
Only about half of those who did so at least monthly before the outbreak say they’d travel, go to bars and restaurants, use public transportation, or exercise at a gym or studio. Just 42% of those who went to concerts, movies, or theater or sporting events at least monthly say they’d do so in the next few weeks if they could.
Still, the poll shows that 66% of Americans continue to say that their personal financial situation is good — a number that has remained steady since before the outbreak began. Americans are also more likely to expect their personal finances to improve than worsen in the next year, 37% to 17%.
In the end, that's what is going to matter most, said Michael Steel, a Republican political strategist.
“This election will turn on facts more than messages," he said. "The president is placing a bet by reopening the economy before public health officials believe it is safe. If the economy recovers sharply and infection rates remain steady or go down, then voters will reward his boldness, but if we continue to see massive unemployment and a spike in new infections and deaths, all the political wordsmithery the world will offer won’t help him.”
AP Director of Public Opinion Research Emily Swanson contributed to this report.