WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday presented a rosy view of the economy during the State of the Union that could be a preview of his campaign strategy later this year when he tries to convince voters to give him a second term.
Trump spent the first part of his address to Congress touting the benefits of his administration’s economic policies for all Americans. He cited historically low unemployment and strong GDP growth while lauding new trade deals, tax cuts and deregulation.
“I am thrilled to report to you tonight that our economy is the best it has ever been,” Trump said.
The annual address, however, comes at a point in Trump’s presidency where the economy is strong, but not as robust as it has been at other times during his administration.
GDP growth closed 2019 solidly but unremarkably at 2.1% in the fourth quarter. That number is healthy, but is well below the high mark of the Trump presidency when growth exceeded 3%. Trump had previously promised that growth would surpass 4%, particularly after the Trump-backed tax cuts that he said would serve as “rocket fuel” for the economy.
Unemployment remains historically low at 3.5%, which matches the lowest rate at any point in the Trump administration and is lower than it was at any point during the Obama administration.
“The years of economic decay are over,” Trump said, though it is unclear what he was referring to as the economy has been expanding since before he took office.
Some Democrats said they doubted that his policies had the impact he claimed they did. But some lines from the president about the economy drew support from Democrats.
“There were a number of points where I stood and applauded because frankly, record low unemployment across a wide range of sectors in our society is a good thing,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said after the speech.
The strength of the economy will likely be a major them in Trump’s campaign for a second term, according to Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll.
Trump will likely lean heavily on his economic message in the Midwest, where he will need to win many of the key states that helped carry him to victory in 2016. In Wisconsin, which voted for Trump in 2016 after voting for Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012, economic policy has consistently been Trump’s “strongest dimension of approval” among voters, Franklin said.
The Marquette poll consistently has shown that Wisconsin residents approve more of Trump’s economic policy than they do of his overall administration. The president is expected to emphasize the strength of the economy during his reelection campaign.
“I think it is a strong strategy that aligns with the things that presidents normally want to take credit for,” Franklin said.
In parts of the Midwest, some economic indicators vary from the broader national picture. Iowa, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin — all four of which flipped from Obama to Trump — have seen their unemployment rates increase slightly over the last year.
Voters have yet to show any anxiety over those increases, Franklin said, but a continued trend of rising unemployment in critical Midwest states could complicate Trump’s path to reelection.
Wisconsin voters, however, tend not mention the economy as the foremost issue on their minds, an indicator, Franklin says, of the strength of the economy. Voters generally aren’t worried about the economy as it continues a decade-long expansion.
Some of Trump’s policies, meanwhile, have been harmful for Rust Belt voters, particularly farmers who in 2019 had a harder time finding international buyers as the trade war between the U.S. and China wore on. Tuesday, Trump highlighted the new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, as well as a phase-one deal with China, as part of a “blue-collar boom.”
John Austin, director of the Michigan Economic Center and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Trump could be doing more to bolster the economy throughout the Midwest.
“Trade policy has been disastrous for farmers and producers in the region,” Austin said.
Even so, the president is no more or less popular among Republican farmers in Wisconsin than he is among all Republicans in the state.
“Those are the economic facts, but it still doesn’t change the political dynamic,” Austin said.
The dynamics of this election could challenge the traditional thinking on presidential elections, where voters are believed to decide their preferences based largely on the economy. Instead, Austin said, people don’t support Trump because of his economic policies, but rather because of his stances other domestic issues like immigration.
He says the region’s economy would be strengthened by investment in education and infrastructure. Republicans and Democrats have expressed desires to reach bipartisan agreement on an infrastructure deal since Trump took office in early 2017. On Tuesday, the entire chamber applauded when the president urged lawmakers to invest in infrastructure.
In November, Republicans up and down the ballot will likely lean on the strength of the economy when delivering their message to voters. After the president’s speech Tuesday, House Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., was optimistic that voters would reward Republicans for their economic policies of the past few years.
“The president had a great story to tell,” Scalise said. “… And clearly the economy is at the heart of that, where you’re seeing people in every walk of life in America being able to have a real chance to achieve the American dream. It’s a great story to tell.”