‘It’s the economy, stupid’ all over again

20 million US jobs just vanished. Here’s what that means 01:14

Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN)After the majority of the country spent weeks in lockdown to help stem the spread of the coronavirus, the Labor Department announced Friday that the US economy lost 20.5 million jobs in April, with unemployment rates soaring to 14.7%. We now face an economic fallout that could rival the Great Depression ― a historic downturn that lasted a decade and destroyed the economic security of our country. This time, some are calling it the Trump Depression.

The situation today is even worse for African American and Latino communities, where the unemployment numbers have reached 16.7% and 18.9%, respectively. While the President suggested the employment figures were only temporary, saying, “Those jobs will all be back, and they’ll be back very soon,” many economists disagreed.
“The damage that we’re seeing from the great coronavirus recession is traumatic. It’s going to take a long time before the labor market recovers to its prerecession state,” said Gregory Daco, a US economist at Oxford Economics.
Jobs will now be a defining issue in the 2020 election. President Trump, who has spent much of his tenure boasting about low unemployment rates and job growth, has lost a basic foundation of his political rhetoric. No matter what chaos was brewing in the first three years of his presidency, Trump could always rely on taking credit for the strong economy.
No more. The state of the union, as President Gerald Ford famously said in 1975, “is not good.” If the situation continues to worsen in the months ahead, voters will decide President Trump’s fate, taking into consideration their own bleak prospects for their futures. With tens of millions of Americans out of jobs, the electorate won’t be happy.
In some ways, the situation could echo the 1992 election, when President George H.W. Bush saw the political bottom of his reelection effort fall out, due in large part to a recession that left many Americans out of work and in debt. In the months before the election, Bush enjoyed booming approval ratings in the wake of Operation Desert Storm, which saw US forces successfully ousting Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
But Bush went on to lose the election to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who focused on the recession and used it to paint an administration that was out of touch with the electorate. Clinton’s strategist James Carville famously reminded his team in the campaign war room, “It’s the economy, stupid!” whenever anyone veered off track.