John Krull

The state of the economy seems to have President Donald Trump worried.

He has lashed out at Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, at Democrats and — of course — the media. They’re all working to tank the economy, the president argues, just to imperil his re-election chances.

It’s an odd notion, given that undermining the economy would cost all of them a lot of money.

But the president is right to be concerned, if not for the reasons he’s stating.

There are signs that the economy is slowing.

And that President Trump may be walking into a political trap.

The problem is — it’s a trap of his own making.

The U.S. economy will go into recession in the relatively near future. This is and will be true regardless of who is president of the United States.

We now are experiencing what has been the longest period of sustained economic growth in U.S. history. But no climb lasts forever.

There have been signs for quite some time that a serious correction — a recession — is on the way.

The stock market has been volatile. The five biggest single-day drops and three of the five largest single-day gains in the market’s history have been recorded in the past two years. That is why economic analysts have turned the market-as-rollercoaster metaphor into a cliché in recent months.

Markets abhor instability, because instability makes planning difficult, if not impossible.

But that really is all this president has had to offer in terms of economic leadership.

Because his negotiating style relies almost exclusively on brinksmanship — bluffing and threatening adversaries into complying with his wishes — he has created chaos in the marketplace.

That’s unfortunate, because the stock market in many ways is propping up what is a struggling economy.

Wage growth for many — and, at times, most — Americans has been negative or non-existent. This is a trend that predates Donald Trump’s presidency by several decades, but it presents a particular peril for him.

Other presidents — Reagan and both Bushes — ran as classic Republican free-market conservatives. They argued that reducing tax rates and cutting back on government regulation would create a rising tide of growth that, ultimately, would lift everyone.

Still other presidents — Clinton and Obama — presented themselves as technocrats and policy wonks with big-picture plans. Through targeted investment and enforcement, they argued they could even out disparities and drive growth from the bottom up.

Only one president in recent memory has presented himself as a kind of economic strong man and, specifically, as a tribunal for the forgotten American. He has said, again and again, that he is the only one who can make the economy thrive.

The only one who can “win.”

The only one who can make America great again.

Other presidents — whether Republican or Democrats — have been savvy enough to celebrate good economic news as a national triumph, rather than a personal one. When the market is booming or unemployment tumbles, they say the good news is the result of the hard work of the American people.

Their modesty is strategic.

Being satisfied with reflected glory also creates some insulation against the times when the economic news isn’t good.

Trump never learned that lesson.

He’s taken sole credit for stock market gains and strong employment numbers. That will make it much harder for him to evade blame when the economy cools.

As it will, because that is what economies do.

Donald Trump won’t deserve all the blame for a recession any more than he deserved all the credit for this long period of economic growth.

But he likely will receive more than his share of the blame because he claimed more than his share of the credit.

When things go well, the president’s unceasing efforts to make everything all about him work to his benefit.

Less so when they do not go well.

As he likely will learn soon. 

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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