President Donald Trump has largely dropped “one of the great campaign lines” from his repertoire in recent months as a turbulent stock market made wild swings: “How’s your 401(k) doing?”
Trump’s repeated boasts about surging stocks and bulging retirement balances -- which dominated his speeches in late 2017 -- have faded away. Instead, the president shifted his political messaging to threats on the U.S.-Mexico border as partial government shutdown stretched for 35 days and investors became increasingly worried that trade tensions with China and others will weaken U.S. growth.
“BUILD THE WALL AND CRIME WILL FALL!” Trump said Wednesday, Thursday and again on Saturday on Twitter, repeating a line he called a “new theme” for Republicans heading into elections in 2020. “Use it and pray!” he urged political allies.
The president also tweeted a 35-second video on Saturday on the same theme, comparing his proposed barrier with one on Israel’s southern border.
Last year was the worst for stocks in a decade, though the markets have bounced back some so far in 2019 after their worst December since 1931.
With the S&P 500 down more than 7 percent over the past 12 months, Trump has come under fire for taking credit when stocks rise only to change the subject when they fall. His old boasts mutate into taunts if the economy turns wobbly or the stock market sinks more.
“It shows the danger of campaigning on the Dow,” said Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the House leadership and the Republican National Committee. “If the Dow is--as it was called by Obama--a daily tracking poll, then you live or die by that daily tracking poll, if that’s something you tout.'
In his first year as president, Trump regularly highlighted the rise in the Dow Jones Industrial Average and linked strong stock performance to his stewardship of the U.S. economy.
He went as far as saying that his next campaign would include a slogan asking voters about how their retirement savings were doing under his presidency. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly referred to an unnamed police officer who, according to the president, praised him for the performance of his retirement account.
“One great gentleman came up and he said, ‘Sir, I want to thank you.’ I said ‘what did I do for you?”’ Trump said in December 2017. “‘He said, ‘my 401(k) is up 40 percent.’ And I never thought of it. You know, I tell you, he gave me one of the great campaign lines. It’s called ‘How is your 401(k) doing?”’
In the last year, Trump’s trade policies and erratic approach to governing have contributed to uncertainty in the markets, and many of the promised gains from his tax legislation have not materialized.
The White House didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In October 2017, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin predicted that passing Trump’s tax bill would not only grow the economy but also boost stocks.
“To the extent we get the tax deal done, the stock market will go up higher,” Mnuchin said in an interview with the “Politico Money” podcast. “But there’s no question in my mind that if we don’t get it done you’re going to see a reversal of a significant amount of these gains.”
More than a year after Trump signed the bill, the stock market has not gone up higher. At the close of trading on Friday, the Dow was still down slightly from Dec. 22, 2017, when Trump signed the tax legislation.
Trump and his top officials have pointed blame for losses at the Federal Reserve’s interest rate increases.
“The only problem our economy has is the Fed,” Trump tweeted last month. “They don’t have a feel for the Market, they don’t understand necessary Trade Wars or Strong Dollars or even Democrat Shutdowns over Borders. The Fed is like a powerful golfer who can’t score because he has no touch - he can’t putt!”
Trump has also tried to blame Democrats for market turbulence. In the weeks leading up to the mid-term elections, Trump told his supporters that their retirement accounts would suffer if Democrats gained power.
“And by the way, your 401(k)s? Boom, they will go down like a sinking something,” Trump said during an Oct. 20 rally in Elko, Nevada. “What sinks rapidly? Give me -- a rock. They will go down like a rock.”
But Trump’s trade war with China is widely believed to be a significant contributor to investors’ concerns about the economy, said Jeffrey Bergstrand, who teaches finance at the University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business.
“This is really initiated by his administration and his advisers on the trade policy side,” said Bergstrand, a former economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. “There’s no question he has responsibility for it.”
To be sure, the broader economy has continued to improve since Trump’s election, and stocks are still higher than they were when Trump took office. After ending 2018 on a steep slide, the S&P 500 is up more than 6 percent so far this year.
The president has been able to boast about low unemployment, higher growth rates, strong consumer sentiment and an increase in manufacturing jobs. Since most Americans don’t have money saved in the stock market, those broader economic trends may have a bigger impact on Trump’s political fortunes.
Rather than ‘how’s your 401(k)?” Trump should be asking “where’s your 401(k)?” since his administration has not taken adequate steps to make sure Americans are saving for retirement, said Mark Iwry, a former deputy assistant Treasury Secretary who helped design the retirement policy of the Obama administration.
“Markets will go up and down,” said Iwry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The 401(k) is a long-term investment that shouldn’t be judged based on the vicissitudes of the business cycle or the stock market.”
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