It’s hard to remember a moment when America has been enjoying such peace and prosperity while at the same time our political conversation has been so acrid.
It’s a paradox of the Trump presidency going into the midterm elections.
The economy is strong by conventional indicators — a 4.2 growth growth rate in real gross domestic product (GDP) for the second quarter of 2018, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, and a 3.9 percent unemployment rate, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
The stock market has racked up impressive gains, with the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index of large U.S. stocks up about 36 percent since Election Day 2016.
America is not mired in any high-profile military conflict generating televised casualties.
President Trump has no Iraq War, no Vietnam. He had not even presided over a series of domestic terrorist attacks such the shootings at an Orlando nightclub or in San Bernardino, Calif., that President Obama endured.
Yet surveys show Trump’s job approval ratings and his favorability ratings underwater.
Polls show a majority of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. Trump’s Republican Party is widely predicted to lose some seats in the November midterm elections.
How to explain the mismatch between the Trump administration’s positive results on the two big issues — peace and prosperity — and the poll numbers? Usually when people talk about a Teflon president they mean that bad news doesn’t stick. Trump, though, risks redefining a Teflon presidency into one in which the credit for good news does not adhere.
There are a lot of factors at work.
Trump, like George W. Bush in 2000, started out from a disadvantage because he won the presidency without winning the popular vote. For those who had hoped Hillary Clinton would be the historic first woman president, the disappointment was severe, and may have something to do with why Trump is facing a “resistance” rather than more conventional opposition.
Voters who lived through the twin traumas of the last decade — the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, and the financial crisis of 2008 — remember how quickly what seems like peace or prosperity may be shattered.
Before Sept. 11 may have felt peaceful, but we now know that enemies were preparing to attack. Between North Korea, Iran, what remains of ISIS or other flavors of militant Islam, and even Russia, there are enough threats on the horizon that “peace” seems an excessively rosy description of the uneasy state of the world. American troops are deployed in Afghanistan and Syria.
Before the 2008 financial crisis felt prosperous, too. We now know, though, how quickly home values and retirement accounts can plummet, how fast the unemployment rolls can swell. There’s a post-crisis tendency to discount good economic news by appending a warning. The economy is doing well under Trump — so far.
The stock market is booming — at least for now. Even those with jobs may be burdened by student debt and by costs of housing and health care, so the national numbers may not directly translate into a feeling of prosperity for voters who are struggling to make ends meet. Trump capitalized on this in 2016, but now he’s the incumbent that voters can blame for their troubles.
Trump is hurt, too, by not having a single identifiable opponent. If he were running against Michael Bloomberg or John Kerry or Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or Andrew Cuomo, he’d be able to define them negatively in the minds of voters.
The midterm elections are viewed as a referendum on Trump. He’s not actually on the ballot, though. Voters are free, therefore, to imagine his opponent not as some flesh-and-blood flawed human but rather as the platonic ideal of presidential perfection.
Trump, it must be said, hasn’t met that ideal himself. He erred in appointing Senator Sessions as attorney general, and then, relatedly, in allowing the appointment of a special counsel to investigate his own administration.
He and Congress have mishandled the influx of children at the border. Michael Ledeen has observed that Trump has been slow to get control of the bureaucracy, avoiding the needed work of staffing the administration with loyalists rather than critics or holdovers.
It’s true, too, that second-term President Clinton and second-term President Obama both also were the targets of much harsh criticism from Republicans in times that looked generally like peace and prosperity.
"Not normal" is a regular refrain of the president’s critics. One thing that doesn’t seem normal is to have a country in such apparently healthy condition so down on its president.
If Trump makes it to 2020, his big challenge will be to turn that mood around.
Ira Stoll is author of "J.F.K. Conservative," and "Samuel Adams: A Life." Read more reports from Ira Stoll — Click Here Now.
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