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Economic Worries Cloud Trump Re-Election Hopes


A flag of the U.S. President Donald Trump's "Keep America Great!" 2020 re-election campaign and the U.S. flag are seen in a flag stall at the Yiwu Wholesale Market in Yiwu, Zhejiang province, China, May 10, 2019.

President Donald Trump’s path to re-election next year seems to have been getting more complicated in recent weeks.

He continues to boast about a strong economy, despite warnings from a number of economists that the U.S. may be headed for a recession in 2020. Now, he must fend off primary challenges from within his own party.

The president is now home from the G-7 summit in France, where he charted a solitary path on trade, Russia and combating climate change.

At a news conference before he left, Trump defended what some see as a chaotic approach to dealing with China on trade.

“It is the way I negotiate. It has done very well for me over the years, and it is doing even better for the country,” Trump told reporters. “It should have been done by other people. It should have been done by Bush. It should have been done by Clinton. It should have been done. I’m doing it.”

Economic Worries Cloud Trump Re-Election Hopes
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Economy and the campaign

During his time in office, Trump has consistently touted the strong U.S. economy at rallies around the country, including one earlier this month in Manchester, New Hampshire.

“Even though we had fake witch hunts on our back and all the other things that we had to go through, we have taken this big beautiful ship and it is being turned around very quickly,” Trump told an enthusiastic crowd.

The president has also taken to warning voters that a possible defeat next year would send the country into a tailspin.

“The fact that I won (in 2016) lifted our economy greatly. And if I didn’t win, it would go down. And frankly, if for some reason that happened in the 2020 election, you will see this economy go down the tubes. I will tell you that right now,” Trump told reporters earlier this month while on vacation in New Jersey.

However, the trade war with China is taking a toll, and some economists now warn of a recession next year that could cripple Trump’s chances of re-election.

Trump’s Democratic rivals, including current front-runner former Vice President Joe Biden, are targeting his handling of the economy.

“It goes less to the underpinning of the economy than to a trade policy, a foreign policy and a domestic policy that has people wondering in the markets how stable this administration is,” Biden told reporters in Vermont this week.

Primary challengers

FILE - Former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington.
FILE - Former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Trump also has a new challenger from within his own party — former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, who has been making the rounds on television shows, including ABC’s "This Week on Sunday."

“I’m running because he is unfit," Walsh said. "Somebody needs to step up, and there needs to be an alternative. The country is sick of this guy’s tantrum. He is a child.”

Walsh may turn out to be nothing more than an irritant, given Trump’s overwhelming support among Republicans. He joins former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, who is already in the race.

Trouble ahead?

Primary challenges to a sitting president have been a sign of political trouble in the past. In 1968, Democrat Eugene McCarthy challenged President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War, and eventually Johnson withdrew from the race.

President Jimmy Carter survived a primary challenge from Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1980 but Kennedy highlighted Carter’s weakness as an incumbent and worries about the economy. Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan in the general election.

In 1992, conservative Pat Buchanan launched a long shot bid against President George H.W. Bush that exposed Bush's vulnerabilities on the economy. Those vulnerabilities were exploited in the general election by Democrat Bill Clinton, who went on to win the presidency.

2020 worries

Even if the Walsh and Weld bids do not amount to a serious challenge in the primaries next year, worries about what may happen if the economy weakens will be with the White House for months to come.

“In modern times, we have never expelled a president or defeated for re-election a president who is presiding over a time of robust recovery, the kind of recovery the U.S. is in at this moment,” said longtime USA Today political reporter and analyst Susan Page. “But we have also never re-elected a president who is running for re-election at a time when we are in a recession. So, that is something the White House is quite aware of.”

Trump generally gets high marks on the economy from voters in public opinion polls, usually well above his overall approval rating, which at the moment averages about 42%.

Protesters hold signs during a "We Stand Up" gathering, protesting a rally by President Donald Trump, Aug. 1, 2019, in Cincinnati.
Protesters hold signs during a "We Stand Up" gathering, protesting a rally by President Donald Trump, Aug. 1, 2019, in Cincinnati.

But a recent Associated Press poll found that growing concerns about the president’s character were beginning to undermine his positive standing on the economy.

“There were some bright spots on the economy and some policies (in the poll),” said AP reporter Steve Peoples. “But overall concerns about this president’s character, the way he communicates, the way he tends to be divisive on some issues really outweighs any benefit that they are seeing from the economy.”

A recent Morning Consult-Politico poll also provided a glimpse of the political blowback that could ensue if the economy weakens during next year’s presidential campaign.

The survey found that 69% of voters would at least partially blame the president for a recession, while 19% said he would not be responsible at all. That includes 49% of Trump voters who said they would hold him at least partially responsible, while 40% would not.

The same poll also showed Trump losing to Biden in a potential 2020 matchup by a margin of 42% to 35%, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders edged Trump by a margin of 40% to 35%.

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass speaks during a town hall campaign event in Los Angeles, Aug. 21, 2019.
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass speaks during a town hall campaign event in Los Angeles, Aug. 21, 2019.

Trump was tied with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 35%, and he led other Democratic contenders in head-to-head matchups, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

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