Perhaps no president in recent history has more pressure on him to perform economic miracles than Donald Trump. As someone who ran on the promise that he could fix the economy — and largely won because of it — Trump faces two severe challenges, one that is largely perceptual and another more critical one that is very real.
To start, Trump must cope with the widespread idea, accepted by much of the media, that we are experiencing something of an “Obama boom.”
Yet this is more a matter of perception than reality, a kind of “fake news.” To be sure, President Barack Obama inherited a disastrous economy from George W. Bush and can claim, with some justification, that on his watch millions of jobs were restored and the economy achieved steady, if unspectacular, growth. Under Obama average GDP growth has been almost twice as high as under his predecessor, but roughly half that of either President Reagan or Clinton.
Less appreciated, however, are the fundamental long-term weaknesses in the U.S. economy that Obama and Bush have left for Trump. A recent report from the U.S. Council on Competitiveness details a litany of profound, lingering flaws — historically slow growth, rising inequality, stagnant incomes, slumping productivity and declining lifespans. As the report concludes: “The Great Recession may be over, but America is dangerously running on empty.”
These make for challenging conditions for Trump to make good on his promise to “make America great again.”
Since 2005 the vast majority of new jobs created have been part-time, and most have been in low-end service professions. Full-time middle-class employment, particularly in fields like manufacturing, construction and energy, has recovered some, but not enough to rekindle a broad sense of economic opportunity. Both the numbers of the rich, and those of the poor, grew markedly under our now departing President. There are now 16 million more people on food stamps than in 2008, and homeownership is down to the lowest level in nearly 50 years.
Trump may have lost the popular vote but given his awful approval numbers, it’s a testament to how deep the distress is for millions amid this economic malaise that he managed to come even close. Perhaps more importantly House Republicans, also running against the economy, outpolled their rivals by 3.5 million votes. Their constituents differ from that of the blue states won by Hillary Clinton. These states, whose economies depend more on financial engineers, real estate speculation, media and technology development, did well – or at least those who worked in these industries did.
Trump’s Biggest Challenge
Trump won because of Middle America — largely white, suburban and small town, mainly in the vast region between the Appalachians and the Rockies. To consolidate his grip on power, and that of his unruly party, he needs to extend the weak, but long-lasting Obama recovery into something that drives up higher wage employment in manufacturing, energy and services.
This is where Trump’s emerging nationalist policies could come into play. Conservatives and liberals alike sneer at his needling of big corporations, foreign and domestic, over jobs, but what is the job of a President? Shouldn’t he be on the side of average citizen in Podunk, USA? If Trump can bring good jobs back to Middle America, notes analyst Aaron Renn , a native of southern Indiana, they’ll appreciate it. Trump, he notes, is “sending a powerful message to workers that they matter and he will fight for their interests. “
His jawboning of Carrier, Ford, GM and Sprint, and even the mighty Apple, could all be dissected as dependent on subsidies, incentives and intimidation. But people in Indianapolis, southeast Michigan and Kansas City are not theoretical beings waiting for the welfare leavings of the coastal super-rich. Their desires matter as much as those of sensitive souls in San Francisco or Brooklyn.
There are certainly ways — tax policies, regulatory reform, infrastructure investment — that might spark growth and get companies to create more jobs here.
Is Trump Up To The Job?
There is nothing better for an economy than mass prosperity, which is something now sorely missing. That means people buying houses, getting married, having babies, the essentials of a strong middle class economy. Anyone who delivers those goods — last accomplished by Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan — seems certain of re-election. This is particularly critical for the roughly seven in 10 Americans who have less than $1,000 in savings.
Of course, Trump seeks to achieve this goal is using a very different approach than either Clinton or Reagan. He has chosen to follow an economic nationalist course that, in some ways, seek to reverse the approach embraced by both of these successful Presidents and much of the nation’s establishment. In contrast to virtually everyone who has held the White House since the 1940s, Trump did not run for leader of the world; he ran, very purposely, as the candidate of Americans. Clinton, like the European Union have offered more complexity, notes the Guardian; Trump, like many effective leaders, boiled everything down to simple memes.
Whether this populist course will work is not clear. Critics in the Democratic Party have pointed out, correctly, that Trump’s cabinet hardly fits a populist mold. It’s full of Wall Street financiers and high level corporate executives. He also will face opposition within his own party, which remains largely chained to big business interests and includes many advocates for ever expanding globalization. Similarly many “routine” jobs that paid well have fallen not simply to foreigners, but to automation and technology.
Yet ultimately Trump has proven himself something of savvy politician — far more than anyone suspected — and seems, at least for now, to be keeping his eye on the ball. The specter of tax, regulatory reform and more infrastructure spending is already ramping up projections of long lagging investment from businesses. And the general population, however deeply divided, seems more optimistic than in previous years, which could further stimulate the economy.
This could reinforce the notion that Trump’s hectoring of executives, and pushing economic nationalism, could prove effective in creating broad based economic growth for the emerging post-globalization era. Now it’s a matter of whether he can pull this off without sparking a trade war, an international meltdown or another recession that could turn him not into the new Reagan, but the latest version of Herbert Hoover.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.