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In the Trump era of polarization, it's never about the economy, stupid | Smerconish

The nearly nine years of economic growth beg the question of whether two bedrock lodestars of American life - the economy and the presidency- are now permanently disengaged?

A jubilant James Carville anticipates Bill Clinton’s victory in the Little Rock war room on election night in 1992 in a scene from the film “The War Room.”
A jubilant James Carville anticipates Bill Clinton’s victory in the Little Rock war room on election night in 1992 in a scene from the film “The War Room.”Read moreFile

Cash registers are jingling across America. The stock market remains high and the unemployment rate is low and maybe headed further downward. Goldman Sachs said the unemployment rate, now 4.1 percent, could tumble to 3.5 percent by the end of 2019. And purchases of new homes are growing at the fastest pace in a decade.  All of which and more has been noted, and recently tweeted, by President Trump:

  1. "Under President Trump unemployment rate will drop below 4%. Analysts predict economic boom for 2018″

  2. "Stock Market hit new Record High yesterday — $5.5 trillion gain … Many companies coming back to the U.S. Military building up and getting very strong"

  3. "…your Country is starting to do really well. Jobs coming back, highest Stock Market EVER … RECORD CUT IN REGS, lowest unemployment in 17 years….!"

  4. " I have the economy booming and have possibly done more than any 10 month President. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!"

  5. "New home sales reach a 10 year high. Stock Market has more record gains. Hopefully Republican Senators will give us the much needed Tax Cuts to keep it all going! Democrats want big Tax Increases."

  6. "Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq all finished the day at new RECORD HIGHS!"

  7. "The Conference Board said that consumer sentiment was at its highest level in nearly 17 years in November"

And yet, one year after an election in which one candidate won the popular vote and another the Electoral College, Americans remain fundamentally divided.  The man in the White House is deeply unpopular. President Trump's disapproval rate is about 55 percent, according to Gallup. That's worse than some of the least popular modern American presidents.

So, when are the economic metrics going to catch up to the polling numbers? Or when are the polling numbers going to catch up to the economic metrics? Maybe never.

In 1992, James Carville famously summarized the key issue in the presidential race with a sign in the Bill Clinton campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Ark., reading: "The economy, stupid." For President George H.W. Bush, the words were prophetic. Bush saw a remarkable reversal of fortune in the time between the invasion of Iraq and the onset of a recession. American voters assessed the economic situation and decided it was time for a change. And ever since, politicos have assumed that Carville's words maintain their currency; that Americans largely vote based on the strength of their wallet. But maybe no more. President Obama presided over eight years of economic recovery and while his disapproval percentage was never as high as Trump's, he never enjoyed a sustained approval rating beyond the mid-50s, and, according to Gallup, after his first few months, his approval never made it out of the 50s.

Viewed this way, the nearly nine years of economic growth under Obama and now Trump raise the question of whether these two bedrock lodestars of American life — the economy and the presidency— are now permanently disengaged. Shy of a national security emergency, have we witnessed the end of days when Americans can generally agree on the job a president is doing?

There's no one better to ask than James Carville. So I called him this week and asked if his words from 1992 still apply? The short answer is not as much.

The Ragin' Cajun told me that the biggest change in American politics since 1992 is "negative partisanship." "We just loathe other parties, which has undoubtedly made the country more tribal," he said.

He noted that it took a long time before Bill Clinton was given credit for the economy in the '90s, "which was really roaring,"

"I mean, all things being equal, I think the economy will still drive public opinion in the United States, but it's not like Trump inherited a bad economy either," Carville told me. "So my guess is that it probably matters a little less today, but most things matter less today because everybody in each party makes the other party somewhat think to stick together."

So, does that mean that come 2020, Trump could gain support among those who opposed him, assuming the economy remains on the upswing? Carville was dubious.

"In the end, [there are] 10 other reasons why people would not be for Trump," he said. Carville thinks those factors will be a lot for Trump to overcome, but said the economy and other issues have been diminished because of negative partisanship.

So, do the economic metrics and presidential approval numbers ever align?

"He [Trump] seems to be completely content with 37 percent of the country in his park," he said. "Previously, every president wanted to be like above 50. He seems to be totally content with having 37 to 38 percent of this country in his corner, and a vast majority are Republicans, and he doesn't even seem to go through the motions to try to bring other people into his orbit, which is unusual in itself."

In other words, it's the polarization, stupid.