Trump blows up stimulus talks, and with them perhaps his chances of reelection

Then, on Tuesday afternoon, less than a month before the election, President Trump pulled the plug.

The economy is already doing so very big-league greatly, he said, that no more fiscal aid is needed. Not until after Nov. 3, anyway.

No matter that 27 million people are still filing for unemployment, or that 1 in 10 adults live in households where there was not enough to eat in the past seven days. Or that tens of thousands of airline employees face layoffs. Or that, just hours earlier, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell urged fiscal policymakers to go big or go home.

“Too little support would lead to a weak recovery, creating unnecessary hardship for households and businesses,” Powell warned at the annual meeting of the National Association for Business Economics.

No matter that markets, Trump’s preferred metric of his economic performance, plummeted seconds after his petulant tweets.

And no matter that Americans themselves overwhelmingly — by a margin of 3 to 1 — say Congress should prioritize coronavirus relief ahead of any Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Trump says, meh, his judicial nominee should come first.

Trump’s message seems to be: Things are going great — no need to try and do better! Yet it must be said: Telling millions of unemployed, hungry and desperate Americans that this is as good as things are going to get does not seem like a winning pitch.

It’s difficult to know what Trump could possibly be thinking, and how, as New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait suggested, this isn’t the worst political blunder in history.

Maybe Trump is bluffing, in hopes that his willingness to walk away from negotiations would wring more politically toxic concessions out of Democrats. (Given the coronavirus hot spot the White House seems to have become, it’s no wonder Republicans are determined to cram liability protections into any pandemic relief bill.)

Or maybe Trump’s coronavirus treatments have messed with his head. This is what he tweeted a few days ago after all, from the hospital:

Maybe the president has become convinced by the economic quacks advising him that passing further fiscal relief at this point would come too late to help his electoral odds.

Even so, Trump usually likes to be seen as doing something beneficent for Americans. Witness the self-aggrandizing letter he insisted on inserting in every federally funded food-aid box, or his push to have his name printed on the stimulus payments the Internal Revenue Service sent out in the spring.

Maybe he realizes there is some tension between labeling this the “Greatest Economy Ever” and simultaneously requesting a stimulus bill with a 13-digit price tag. Not that such cognitive dissonance has ever stopped Trump before.

My theory as to why Trump won’t just give the people what they want, and rescue (i.e., bribe) voters into reelecting him: He’s too self-absorbed to care about widespread economic pain, and either too dense or socially blinkered to realize his own political interests in stopping it.

The economy is the one issue on which Trump has historically led his rival, Joe Biden. Until recently, anyway; in recent polls, that lead has narrowed or even vanished. Now, one might wonder why voters had viewed him as superior on the economy, given the jaw-dropping, worst-in-modern-history economic numbers recorded earlier this year. After all, right now, Trump is on track to become the first president since modern economic statistics were created to leave office with fewer jobs than he inherited.

Part of the reason voters saw him as good for the economy is that, even though people were out of work and businesses were shuttered, uber-generous fiscal aid was helping to keep them afloat. The $600 federal weekly supplement to unemployment benefits, Paycheck Protection Program and $1,200 stimulus checks (among other measures) provided lifelines to millions of Americans. In fact, personal income actually rose in the spring, because government transfers were so large they more than offset wage losses.

Quite possibly, people didn’t blame Trump for their economic ruin because, at least temporarily, they didn’t feel economically ruined.

Now, most of that aid has lapsed. The job market is stalling. And Americans are worried about eviction, hunger and joblessness.

But Trump can’t put 2 and 2 together. He seems to have drunk his own Kool-Aid and decided that, hey, the economy actually is the Greatest Ever — and it’s because of his inspiring leadership and upbeat tweets, rather than the cash that was being stuffed into voters’ pockets. The Mar-a-Lago set seems to be doing okay, after all, even though the $600 unemployment supplement ended; the donors he met (and possibly infected) at Bedminster last week clearly still had cash to burn, even without more nutritional aid, stimulus checks or child-care assistance.

Surely, then, the rest of Americans can continue puttering along, powered only by the happy talk and bluster Trump chooses to bestow upon them.

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