WASHINGTON — In the last year of former president Donald Trump’s administration, the economy plummeted on the heels of a global pandemic, a historic calamity which Trump, at one point, suggested could be cured by injecting bleach. The biggest protests over racial injustice since the civil rights movement spread quickly across the country. The president was soundly defeated in his bid for reelection, tried to overturn the result, encouraged a mob to march toward the Capitol, and left office with an approval rating of just 29 percent.
But these days, when Trump talks about his time in office, he tells a story of historic economic growth, exquisite statesmanship, and unrivaled prosperity.
“We had,” he said last month at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, “among the greatest four-year periods in the history of the presidency.”
Trump’s extraordinary campaign for a second term has relied in part on a retelling of his first, one that sometimes exaggerates and misstates his accomplishments and is silent on his failures. His omissions are the headlines that shape how Democrats remember that period — the two impeachments, the chaotic pandemic response, the bid to overthrow the lawful election result. But some in their party, including those working on President Biden’s reelection campaign, have noticed that, according to polling and focus groups, the twists and turns of Trump’s tumultuous presidency have faded from voters’ minds faster than they ever thought possible. They worry this could affect the election in the fall.
“It’s really surprised me,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has worked for Biden in the past. “That mind-set makes it more difficult for Biden to break through with his accomplishments.”
Trump and his surrogates are wielding his term as president — one that voters already weighed in on unfavorably in 2020 — as an unalloyed asset.
“The argument to voters is just, you know, look at the evidence right in front of our faces,” said Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio in an interview with the Globe last month when he was campaigning for Trump in New Hampshire. “Do you actually think that the world is more peaceful now than it was three years ago? Do you actually think that you personally are more prosperous than you were three years ago?
“And I think on that question, and that argument,” he added, “we can win.”
Trump’s term saw real victories — three years of rollicking economic growth and Supreme Court appointees who went on to reach a long-time goal on the right, overturning Roe v. Wade, to name two. But it was also beset with day-to-day turbulence that he often fomented with impulsive tweets and public statements, and by serially dismissing Cabinet members, often with an insulting parting shot. His unpredictable approach to foreign policy sometimes made friends of enemies while rattling longtime allies in Europe. He oversaw the longest government shutdown in American history, saw a series of high-profile aides quit in protest of his policies and rhetoric, and famously suggested there were “very fine people on both sides” of a clash between white nationalists and racial justice protestors in Charlottesville, Va.
It was a period of toxic political divisions that Biden promised voters could put behind them if he was elected president. And while his presidency has had its share of of domestic political standoffs and economic malaise, and seen serious tumult abroad, Democrats are now setting out to remind voters of what they might have forgotten.
“Voters overwhelmingly rejected Donald Trump’s horrific record of cruel abortion bans, shipping jobs overseas, and siding with Putin over democracy in 2020 and in virtually every election since when his extreme agenda was on the ballot,” said Ammar Moussa, a spokesman for Biden’s campaign. “President Biden and our entire campaign will spend the next nine months ensuring voters are clear on the stark choice between President Biden’s record of accomplishments and vision for the future, and Trump’s extreme and deeply unpopular version of America’s future.”
The Trump campaign did not return a request for comment.
Part of the challenge for Biden is that Trump, who is a former president but not an incumbent, is benefiting from a typical pattern in recent American history: Voters tend to remember presidents more fondly once they are out of office. According to Gallup, Trump’s retrospective approval rating sits at 46 percent — a figure that is 5 points higher than his average approval rating while in office, according to the firm.
“He never achieved majority job approval, ever,” said the Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “To a certain extent, these are people who voted for him twice, looking back and basically saying, ‘I did the right thing.’”
It is also higher than the average approval rating the firm tracked for Biden last year, which was 39.8 percent.
Another key factor working in Trump’s favor is the widespread yearning for the economic conditions of the first three years of his administration, before inflation rocketed upward in the aftermath of the pandemic and the Federal Reserve raised interest rates in an effort to tame the economy. A January poll from NBC found Trump with a 22 percentage-point lead over Biden in his handling of the economy.
That is something Trump expounds on in detail at his campaign rallies, where he calls himself a more unfairly treated president than Abraham Lincoln — who was assassinated — and sings the praises of his own administration, weaving multiple exaggerations into his stump speech in the space of just a few seconds.
“Number one biggest tax cut. ... We had the greatest economy in history,” Trump said in Las Vegas. “We rebuilt our military. We defeated ISIS.”
All of those claims are dubious, at the least. Larger tax cuts, as a share of GDP, have been passed numerous times, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. There have certainly been periods of greater economic growth, including the so-called long boom of the 1980s and 1990s. Fact-checkers have repeatedly found Trump’s claim of rebuilding the US military to be exaggerated. And ISIS, the terrorist group, repeatedly attacked its targets throughout Trump’s presidency, especially in Africa.
From behind the podium, Trump also speaks of overseeing the “safest border in US history,” even though unauthorized border crossings shot up in 2019, during his presidency, and he never finished his promised border wall.
And he often speaks as if the COVID pandemic, which tanked the economy and caused widespread sickness and death during the final year of his presidency, basically never happened — a portrayal that aligns with what Lake, the Democratic pollster, hears in focus groups.
“Nobody seems to remember COVID,” Lake said. “It’s like COVID was a blank period. They don’t remember the turmoil of Trump and they don’t remember the steps Biden took to get things under control.”
The crowds at Trump’s rallies are quick to revel in the glory of the Trump years. And some bring up the chaos, but minimize it.
“There was like, [as] close to zero unemployment as you can get. Gas was super cheap,” said Steve McGuire, 66, an Iowa car mechanic and a devoted supporter of the former
president, in a recent phone interview. “Homes were cheap, interest was reasonable … he just had it down pat.”
“All those things that happened when he was president were positive for everyone,” said Denise Jones, 64, an Iowa voter who went to see Trump’s former housing secretary, Ben Carson, before the Iowa caucuses. “Not just me. Young and old, Black, white, everyone was doing better.”
“It was a huge feeling of great hope,” said Deb Matulaitis, 57, an electronics worker from Concord, N.H., “and it felt safe.”
During the primaries, Trump’s challengers struggled to land convincing blows about his record. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, Trump’s only remaining opponent , has not made Trump’s term — an administration she was part of as ambassador to the United Nations — a major pillar of her campaign against him. She has long jabbed at his spending while president, and, while she was campaigning in New Hampshire, accused him of failing to stop the flow of fentanyl across the Southern border and not being tough enough on China.
But generally her criticism of Trump’s presidency was muted during most of the campaign and, even now, is short on specifics.
“Chaos follows him,” Haley said this week in Charleston, S.C., repeating a familiar line. “We can’t be a country in disarray and a world on fire.”
Some attacks on Trump’s record simply haven’t worked. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, for example, frequently pilloried Trump for not firing Dr. Anthony Fauci, the former government health official who advised Americans to take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when the pandemic broke out in 2020. The jibe didn’t take with the public.
But Trump’s supporters have always been quick to rally to his defense, even for criticisms they actually agree with.
“He was bamboozled. He was surrounded by people who were not true to him, they were lying to him,” said Tom Cronin, an engineer for a medical company at the event where Vance spoke in New Hampshire last month.
“Republican primary voters never assign blame to Trump for the job he did as president,” said Gunner Ramer, the political director for a group called Republican Accountability PAC. “They blame RINOs, they blame the establishment, sometimes the deep state, the Democrats. It’s never Trump’s fault.”
Amanda Gokee of the Globe staff contributed reporting.