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Trump, Biden Focus Campaigns On Economic Reform


All right, let's pivot to politics. In normal times, the economy is a pivotal issue in a presidential election year. The presidential candidates are aware of that. And this week, both Joe Biden and Donald Trump talked about how they plan to rebuild the economy. But there are indications the economy might not be as influential in this year's election as it once was. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has been reporting on this and joins us now. Good morning, Danielle.


MARTIN: All right. So before we talk about how voters internalize the economy as an issue, let's talk about the case that's being made by President Trump and Joe Biden. What are they saying?

KURTZLEBEN: Sure. So both are, of course, right now amid double-digit unemployment - they're talking about rebuilding. So Biden put out a new plan yesterday that in part focused heavily on boosting manufacturing. Both candidates like to talk about buying American to boost manufacturing. In addition, Trump is on the attack against Biden, though. He's saying that Biden is bad for the middle class. He has a new ad attacking him for supporting trade deals like NAFTA. Biden, meanwhile, says that, yes, he wants to rebuild, but he also wants to fix what he sees as basic problems in the economy. So, for example, shrink big racial, economic wealth gaps and boost unionization.

MARTIN: I mean, we have to acknowledge we're in a recession right now, a recession happening under the watch of President Trump. Does that not give Biden leverage on the economic argument?

KURTZLEBEN: Of course it does, to some extent. But I wouldn't want to overstate that because first of all, we're not exactly sure where we'll be in November in terms of trajectory. We could be healing. We could be getting worse or just stuck. But also, the economy is Trump's best area. His approval on the economy has for a long time been quite a bit better than his overall approval rating. So a big part of his argument is, we're going to rebuild to how we were pre-pandemic because the economy was doing pretty well before all of this.

But to zoom out and look at past elections, yes, we do know there is good evidence that jobless rates, personal income really has been correlated with how voters choose. And to the extent that it matters, it matters especially in swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, etc. It affects the voters on the margins there.

MARTIN: On the margins. But, Danielle (laughter), I still don't understand how the economy isn't the No. 1 issue because of where we are right now. I mean, it may be caused by the pandemic. But nevertheless, the economy is not good.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure. Yes. And, of course, the economy is, of course, very important to voters. But one thing that we seem to be seeing is a more intensified version of something we've seen before. And that is partisanship affecting how people see the economy. We know that it - polarization has grown in some ways, that people are very, very dug into their partisan identities - this idea of what team they're on.


KURTZLEBEN: And we see that in how people see the economy. During recent Democratic administrations, Republicans have seen the economy as bad and vice versa. During Republican administrations, Democrats see it as bad. That hasn't always been that way. Those yawning gaps weren't around, say, during the Bill Clinton era. So those gaps have just exploded under Donald Trump. So come November, if the economy is doing really badly, Republicans might be less likely to see it as doing worse. And if the economy were healing, Democrats might not see it that way. And therefore they wouldn't be likely to give the president credit for it.

MARTIN: Oh, my. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Thank you. We appreciate your reporting on this.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "TOTEM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.