The phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” has been a truism of American politics. It’s one thing that Republicans and Democrats agree on. It has served as a constant reminder that when it comes to presidential approval ratings and winning elections, everyone should ignore the wars, the scandals, and the personalities, and remain focused on how the economy is faring.
But in the year since Donald Trump has been president it hasn’t been the economy, stupid. Indeed, there has been a consistent disconnect between good marks for the economy and Trump’s approval ratings. He is the most unpopular president in modern American history.
New employment numbers were released by the federal government on Friday, showing the economy has added jobs for the 88th straight month and unemployment is holding at a low 4.1 percent. But the news was overwhelmed by a whirlwind of controversy over a memo that House Republicans and Trump released as part of their apparent campaign to discredit the FBI and Justice Department.
This is a big departure from where we were the last time a first-term president was in office. Barack Obama’s first term was largely about trying to recover from the Great Recession. The first Friday of every month, the release of the job numbers would tee up the discourse on cable news the rest of the day and possibly through the weekend. When the job numbers and other economic metrics were up, Obama’s approval rating usually went up. The same was true for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
“Trump has broken, at least in the first year, the typical connection between a strong economy and a president’s approval ratings,” said Rice University political science professor Lyn Ragsdale, who has written four books on the presidency and voter behavior. “People are so highly negative on his honesty, leadership qualities, level-headedness, and key values that he does not get a halo effect from the economy that other presidents have received.”
The especially troubling thing for Trump is that, if you look closer at the numbers, voters are generally giving him credit for the economy, but still giving him bad overall ratings.
The Real Clear Politics poll average finds 51 percent approving of his handling of the economy, while only 41 percent approve of his presidency overall.
The discrepancy “has been something of a puzzle,” said Matt Dickinson, an American politics expert at Middlebury College in Vermont. He believes the reason for the disconnect is the overwhelmingly negative press coverage — and Trump’s habit of stepping on his own good news.
Dickinson said the “It’s the economy, stupid” maxim can still hold up, if Trump could just be more disciplined.
“I don’t want to go so far as to say that phrase no longer applies because there have just been so many distractions,” Dickinson said. “What we do know is that as candidates and political parties begin to get more focused on issues for the campaign, some will be talking about the economy more and that could bring us back to more of the norm.”
Perhaps for the Trump presidency, the new guiding principle is not “It’s the economy, stupid” but rather “If he could just be more disciplined.”