Progressives Shouldn’t Shy Away From Having Economic Debate With Trump

During his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Trump talked about what he called “the great American comeback.”

The story he told was exaggerated, at best. Yes, the unemployment rate is near record lows — but wage growth, which had been on the rise, decelerated sharply last year. And while GDP is rising, the 2.3 percent growth rate in 2019 is the lowest it’s been in three years — and far below the 4 percent growth that Trump has repeatedly promised. It’s true that there is fairly high confidence in the state of the economy today. According to new polling from Navigator Research, 62 percent of Americans rate the economy as either “excellent” or “good.”

Given this, progressives might be tempted to shy away from talking about bold economic policies, and instead put forth a less ambitious agenda or simply promise a return to a time before the president’s off-the-wall tweets dominated the news. This would be a mistake.

Although the American people are broadly positive about the economy, they also see that it’s leaving them behind. According to the same Navigator survey, most people believe the winners from Trump’s economic policies have been the wealthy and corporations, not the middle class or “people like you.” The president can’t say that the economy is doing well if workers are not seeing the benefits of their hard work.

The truth is not only do Americans want to hear about bold economic policies, they don’t necessarily see them as bold. Instead, the words most used to describe things like universal child care, raising taxes on the rich and transitioning to clean energy are “necessary,” “exciting,” and “ambitious.”

More and more progressive leaders are emphasizing policies that combat the growing gap between the wealthy and everyone else. Anyone who’s heard a stump speech by Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren knows that for decades, the gains from U.S. economic growth have been captured almost entirely by the top 1 percent. Between 1979 and 2018, economic productivity grew by nearly 70 percent. Wages for the typical worker, meanwhile, increased just 12 percent. CEOs at the country’s top firms now make 278 times more than the average worker — up from about 20 times in the 1970s. And not only are American workers not seeing material gains to hard work, but fewer and fewer people think their job is a good one.

Not only are the gains of a growing economy going almost entirely to the top, but Trump’s policies have made it worse. The president’s signature achievement is his tax bill, which when it’s fully phased in will give 83 percent of its benefits to the top 1 percent. And 91 corporations, including Amazon, Chevron, Halliburton and IBM, paid $0 in federal income taxes in 2018. Instead of investing the money they saved, corporations put that money into stock buybacks to enrich their shareholders and CEOs. Not only has the $4,000 raise the Trump administration promised not materialized, but remember when corporations announced a flurry of bonuses after the tax cuts passed? The average bonus workers got was 2 cents.

In other words, while the economy might be booming for big corporations, everyday Americans aren’t sharing in the gain.

People realize that Trump is putting big corporations and the wealthy ahead of working people. According to the Navigator survey, 58 percent of Americans share that sentiment. When they’re making an argument for bold economic policies, progressives should start by reminding Americans why change is needed in the first place. The economy is not producing the kind of real economic prosperity in which everyone benefits. 

That helps explain why Navigator found that, by a 14-point margin, Americans are more likely to agree with a progressive frame that puts structural problems in the economy front and center as a case for change over the conservative case that the economy is booming. And even though Americans think the economy is doing well, it doesn’t translate to approval for Trump’s economic policies or satisfaction with how he’s handling the economy. Just 32 percent of Americans believe he should continue with the same economic policies, compared to 56 percent who think the president should change course.

A bold progressive policy agenda aimed at putting middle- and working-class Americans first is overwhelmingly popular. From investing in the creation of energy efficient infrastructure, to creating a universal child care system, to strengthening labor protections, to raising taxes significantly on the wealthy, each proposal was supported by at least 6 in 10 Americans. 

Trump might have engineered a great American comeback for those at the top, but the rest of us are still waiting to be put in the game.


Bryan Bennett is the Director of Polling and Analytics at The Hub Project, where he oversees public opinion research efforts as well as analytics/metrics assessments used to inform various campaigns. He is also an advisor to Navigator Research, a consortium of polling firms working to help top leaders in Washington and grassroots leaders around the country shape the debate on the issues that matter most.

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