WASHINGTON -- With the end of the Mueller probe and the news that the U.S. economy is performing far beyond expectations, President Donald Trump has reached an inflection point in his presidency. He has the chance to turn the political tides decisively in his favor, if he takes it.
On Friday, we learned that the economy added 263,000 jobs in April -- exceeding the 190,000 that economists predicted. This came on top of the news, a week earlier, that the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of 3.2% in the first quarter, far exceeding predictions of 2.5% growth. Unemployment is at the lowest level in five decades. In fact, America's biggest economic problem is that, according to the Washington Post, "the United States has more job openings than unemployed people" to fill those jobs.
Not only are people finding work, but their paychecks are growing. In April, wages rose 3.2%, the ninth straight month of above 3% wage growth. And the Wall Street Journal reports that wages for Americans without a high school diploma rose more than 6% last year, outpacing all other groups.
That's bad news for Joe Biden. His presidential campaign is built on the rationale that he can win back the "forgotten Americans" in key swing states who voted twice for him and Barack Obama but switched to Trump in 2016. His problem is these Americans are doing better under Trump than they did under Obama-Biden. In Wisconsin, the unemployment rate is 2.9%; in Pennsylvania, it is 3.9%; in Michigan, it is 4%; and in Ohio, 4.4%. Are these voters really going to switch horses in midstream when they are doing so much better during Trump's presidency than they did during Biden's vice presidency?
Here is the bad news for Trump: While approval for his handling of the economy reached a new high of 56%, his overall job approval is still a dismal 45%, according to a CNN poll. Despite the booming economy, a 54% majority still disapprove of Trump's presidency.
Why is that? One reason may be that, for the past two years Trump has been fighting accusations that he committed treason by conspiring with Russia to steal the 2016 election. No one likes a traitor, even if he is a job creator.
When under attack, the natural instinct is to circle the wagons. Trump has spent the first two years of his presidency feeding and tending to his base, rather than working to expand it. He lashed out with what we now know was justifiable anger at the special counsel and Democrats who accused him of being a Russian agent. Persuadable Americans did not know what to think. But now with the Mueller investigation over, and Trump cleared of any conspiracy with Russia, they might be willing to give the president a second look.
How many voters are out there whom Trump might be able to win over? A lot. In the CNN poll, 20% of those who say they disapprove of Trump's performance generally say they approve of his handling of the economy. These Americans are happy with the results of Trump's presidency but not with him. The president's challenge between now and November 2020 is to win over as many of those voters as possible.
He can do that by restoring some normalcy to Washington. Trump needs to focus on a positive agenda to improve the lives of Americans, draw attention to his accomplishments rather than his controversies and reach out and try to work with Democrats. He needs to keep the economy moving, which is why the $2 trillion infrastructure package he announced with "Chuck and Nancy" is so appealing to the president. For Trump, it is a win-win -- blue-collar jobs and Keynesian economic stimulus.
Trump seems ready to make this pivot. He tweeted last week that "after two years of hard work and each party trying their best to make the other party look as bad as possible, it's time to get back to business. … Republicans and Democrats must come together for the good of the American people." But it will take more than a tweet. Trump needs to be disciplined. He cannot allow Democrats to coax him into toxic political fights. He has been cleared of Russian collusion. Democrats are hurting only themselves with their never-ending investigations. He needs to focus on being president. His policies are working. He needs to make sure that Americans know it.
There are millions who are benefiting from the Trump economic boom who do not support Trump -- yet. His job is to change their minds. He's got 545 days to do it.