There is no disputing that the state of the economy is a major factor in the reelection equation for any president. That is not to say a good economy guarantees a president a second term or a bad economy is always fatal, but the economy is always important. A recession is obviously the mortal fear of presidents; the last to face one during a reelection was Jimmy Carter, and we know how that ended up.
The U.S. economy behaved something like a yo-yo this past year: Real gross-domestic-product growth was 2.2 percent in the first quarter, an incredibly high 4.2 percent in the second quarter, a strong 3.4 percent in the 3rd quarter, and, according to the Blue Chip Economic Indicators January survey of 49 top economists, will have grown about 2.7 percent for the final quarter of last year. So for 2018, the U.S. economy looks likely to have grown about 3.2 percent.
Will there be a recession before the 2020 election? The Blue Chip survey found that 25 percent of economists thought there would be a recession in 2019, climbing to 37 percent for 2020. The December National Association for Business Economics poll of 53 professional forecasters was a bit more cautious, putting the chances of a 2019 recession at 20 percent and 30 percent for 2020. Interestingly, of the 49 economists surveyed by Blue Chip, the 10 most optimistic put the chances of a recession in 2019 and 2020 at 12.5 and 19.3 percent, respectively, while the 10 most pessimistic put the chances at 19.3 percent and 58.5 percent for the two years.
But let’s assume that the pessimists are wrong, that there is not a recession either this year or next—in other words, before the November 2020 election. Even stipulating that, few economists doubt the premise that the economy will be slower in 2019 than it was in 2018, and most believe that 2020 will be even slower. The Blue Chip panel of economic forecasters projected a 2.2 percent growth rate for the first quarter of 2019, 2.5 percent for the second quarter, 2.2 percent for the third quarter, and 2.0 percent for the fourth quarter—a substantially slower rate than 2018. For 2020, the consensus forecast is for 1.7 percent in the first quarter, 1.6 percent in the second quarter, 1.5 percent in the third quarter, and 1.6 percent for the fourth quarter.
In the Federal Reserve Board’s Federal Open Market Committee Dec. 18-19 meeting, each of the FOMC members had to submit their own forecasts of economic growth. The average forecast was for 2.3 percent growth for 2019: The lowest was 2.0 percent, and the highest was 2.7 percent. For 2020, the average forecast was 2.0, the lowest was 1.5 percent, and the highest 2.2 percent.
The point of all of this is not to bury readers in data but to show that the best economists in the country virtually all agree that the economy is going to be slowing down this year and next, and even the most optimistic ones believe there will be a slowdown, though short of a recession. History shows that the better the economy, the better a president’s chances of reelection—and that the direction of the arrow is important. An improving economy creates hope and good feelings; a slowing one creates concern if not fear.
Listening last week to The Carlyle Group’s David Rubenstein interviewing Fed Chair Jerome Powell at the Economics Club of Washington, one couldn’t help but be impressed by Powell and reassured by his steady hand on the monetary-policy tiller with choppy seas ahead. While the Fed is technically not a fourth branch of government, in many ways it is, and it's arguably the one that in recent decades has been the best run. We’ve had some awfully impressive people sitting in that chair, from Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke to Janet Yellen and now Powell.
One can debate whether we should have passed the 2017 tax cuts, but it is hard to argue with the proposition that they gave the U.S. economy a sugar high that we are now coming down from. Combine that with a slowing world economy, trade wars, scandals, and political dysfunction, and you have a situation that ought to be keeping President Trump up at night. None of these things is likely to erode the 35 percent of the electorate that constitutes Trump’s base, just as nothing could lure the 45 percent adamant opposition into his corner. But—thanks in part to the economy—his ability to win enough of the fifth of voters who may be up for grabs is increasingly in doubt.