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  • Sheri Rivlin Allan Rivlin

How to Debate the Trump Economy: Go Local

Updated: Jun 10, 2019

There is a right way and a wrong way for Democrats to debate the economy in the 2018 election. Both ways are true, but one is vastly more likely to win votes in the key battleground states and congressional districts Democrats need to win. Highlighting local economic conditions and local economic anxieties in the middle of America, rather than quoting national statistics, is the best way to debate the Trump economy.

First the facts: The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ tells us the US economy added 213,000 new jobs in June 2018 to reach an all time high of just fewer than 150 million employed Americans. The unemployment rate ticked up two tenths to 4.0 percent (6.5 percent among African Americans, 4.6 percent among Hispanic Americans). The White House released the numbers under the headline, “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, The American Economy is Booming.”

Republicans have been crowing about the Trump Economy for over a year, and consumer confidence numbers are indeed stronger. But Democrats should not accept the canard that the Trump economy is in any meaningful way stronger than the economy under President Obama, or strong enough to brag about. The evidence is all around us that the Trump economy is failing to provide relief to the communities that need it most -- the mid-sized cities and smaller towns, and their surrounding counties, across middle America that need better paying jobs and more hope for a better future.

One way to debate the Trump economy is to reply to the national statistics quoted by Republicans with other national statistics that paint a broader picture. It is true that national employment is at an all time high, but as shown in the chart above, the growth in employment has been on an upward-sloping, nearly straight line since the depths the of economic downturn Obama inherited from George W. Bush.

Trump has added an average of 189,000 jobs every month since he took the oath of office at the end of January 2016 through June 2018 (using the BLS survey of businesses and other employing establishments). However, between September of 2010 and the end of his second term, a period extending well over six years, Obama added an average of 202,000 jobs per month.

The same is true for most economic indicators, the Trump economy is no more, nor less, than a continuation of the Obama economy. The unemployment rate was heading down during the Obama Administration, and it is lower now than when he left office. The stock market is up, but it is in line with the nine-year expansion started during Obama’s first term. Gross domestic product, housing starts, new business formation, all are better since Trump took office, but in line with the trends Trump inherited from Obama. Perhaps the most important measure, real incomes for working Americans, are also up but only at a frustratingly slow pace. Again, this was the case as Obama left office.

The more accurate characterization is not that the economy under President Trump is surging ahead, but that it is neither better, nor worse than the economy under President Obama. And this points the way to another way to debate the Trump economy, because in reality, the Obama economy was not all that great for many Americans -- especially in the parts of the country Democrats need to win back in order win control of the House and Senate, and ultimately the White House, in elections in 2018 and 2020.

Democrats often characterize the unevenness in economic growth using the language of economic class -- noting that the 1 percent has hoarded most of the gain while the middle-class, working class, and the poor have fallen behind. It is equally true, and potentially more politically persuasive in the middle of America, to note that the geographical inequality of growth under President Obama has continued under President Trump.

Democrats had a lot of national statistics documenting the slow but steady recovery, but still we lost the elections of 2010, 2014, and 2016 because voters in states like Michigan, Iowa, Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania were not seeing any evidence of an economic recovery. National statistics showed gains, but those gains were heavily concentrated in a small number of big cities in California, Texas, Florida, New England, and New York down through Washington DC.

The rest of the country was falling behind economically, seeing factory closings, stagnant incomes, large numbers of people dropping out of the workforce, and sharp increases in all of the indicators of social stress like alcoholism, opioid addiction, and rising suicide rates. Democratic leaders in Washington seemed to be looking the other way as President Obama and Hillary Clinton mostly shared positive economic news to the degree that they talked about the economy at all. Donald Trump filled this vacuum with scapegoating, easy answers, and big promises, but his disruptive policies on healthcare and trade create real opportunities for Democrats to connect with middle-American voters if they can offer substantive plans to bring growth and opportunity, better paying jobs, and economic security to the areas of the country that have been falling behind.

In 2018, even though the economy is the same, the partisan roles are reversed. If Republicans are saying the economy is going gangbusters, Democrats have the opportunity to connect with struggling local communities and run against Washington politicians who are out of touch with local realities.

“Politicians in Washington do not see us.”

Rather than debating national economic statistics, Democrats should shine a light on the real-life local economic conditions, the daily experiences, and economic anxieties of local constituents. “My opponent has statistics to say the national economy is booming, Well it is not booming right here in this community. My opponent is out of touch. The economy is not booming when factories are closing, businesses on Main Street are vacant, schools are closing and consolidating, and our local hospital may have to close. People in this community are working harder than ever, many people are holding down two jobs, but we are in debt up to our eyeballs, and our neighbors’ sons and daughters are moving to New York and California to find economic opportunity.”

There are struggling communities in the big cities, and technology centers that are indeed surging ahead. A high cost of living including housing costs are forcing people without a high income to move out of the city center and transportation routes are crowded to the point of choking. The politics of economic class inequality has strong resonance in the big coastal cities because people can see the great wealth disparities. In the cities where the “one percent” live, people feel the economy is only working for those at the top. Most of these areas are represented by Democrats in Congress and in the Senate.

But in vast stretches of America outside of the largest cities, good paying jobs are hard to find, factories have closed and have not reopened, home values are still lower than before the real estate led financial crisis of 2008, and populations are declining as young people leave looking for opportunities in the crowded booming cities.

These communities know they are falling behind the big cities on the coasts, so rather than inequality of economic class, it is geographical inequality that has the most resonance. In the middle of America, people feel invisible to the wealthy elites living in New York, California, and Washington. Economic frustrations caused these communities to back Republicans for Senate, House, and State Legislative seats in 2010, 2014, and 2016. These are exactly the seats Democrats need to win back in 2018.

The election of Donald Trump has done little to alleviate this geographic inequality. Sixty-four percent of all jobs created in 2017 were added in cities with over 1 million residents, which is more than their share of the population (59 percent). This means the economic gap between the largest cities and everyone else continues to grow bigger even with Trump in the White House. In many communities across the middle of America, workers only see “help wanted” signs in the big box stores and national restaurant chains, and they worry that there is no place for them and their children in the globally connected information economy that is bringing so much money to the big cities like San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Boston.

Connect with local problems and celebrate local success

Residents of distressed small town and mid-sized cities in middle America do not need statistics to know the local economy is still struggling in the age of Trump. Their own eyes tell them many stores on Main Street are still closed, many local factories still have locks on the fence. Opioid addiction is getting worse not better. Everywhere they go they find people working longer hours for less pay than the jobs they lost a few years ago, and many people have stopped looking for work. The Economic Innovation Group had identified all of the most economically distressed zip codes. (Click here for an interactive link.) Stand in those communities and tell the stories of real Americans that are still invisible to any Washington politician who says the Trump economy is booming.

When Republican opponents assert that the Trump economy has been good for America, Democratic candidates have the opportunity to ask voters this simple question, “Who are you going to believe -- Donald Trump’s twitter account or your own eyes and the needs of your family, friends, and the community where you live?”

Still all is not bleak in the smaller cities and towns across the middle of America where city mayors (usually Democrats) are getting together with County Executives (mostly Republicans), local businesses, labor unions, non-profits and regional banks to leverage innovation at local colleges, develop plans to start new businesses, grow existing businesses, and attract new jobs. They are stitching together a patchwork of federal, state, and local programs; creating technology based ecosystems and advanced manufacturing hubs, and investing in putting people to work modernizing schools and housing, and building the roads, energy grids, and data networks needed for success in the modern economy.

While connecting to the economic frustrations and anxieties of local voters it is important to also celebrate the successes of these local efforts to chart a new course. Whenever a technical training center is built to train workers for better paying jobs, or a new company is formed to bring new technology in precision agriculture, modern manufacturing, or sustainable energy; help voters understand how it is part of a broader strategy of deliberate investment in collaborative regional economic development.

Instead of more tax cuts, invest in our communities

As Democrats, it is our role to oppose mindless tax cuts for the rich that starve our schools and force us to underfund needed investments. It is our role to oppose cuts in needed programs like Medicaid that threaten the viability of local hospitals, that are often the largest employer in many towns struggling to move forward not fall backward. And it is our role to make sure local development plans include every community in each region because gentrification has never been just a problem for the largest cities, and fighting geographic inequality means connecting every community to progress. And it is our job to oppose Trump’s chaotic trade policies that threaten to disconnect American manufacturers and farm communities from the connections to international markets they have worked so hard to build.

Even though there is a strong case to be made based on national statistics that the Trump economy is not delivering for middle-class Americans, there is a better argument for voters in the middle-American states and battleground congressional districts Democrats need to win. Tell the stories of local economic conditions, local fears and frustrations, and local efforts to move the economy forward, and bring local workers a measure of hope that the future will offer economic opportunity and economic security.

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