Campaigning under the stifling August sun, Joe Biden assailed President Donald Trump’s trade war with China, accusing him of squandering a strong economy and putting Americans’ financial security at risk.
But he was quick to add that he was not hoping for the worst.
“I never wish for a recession. Period,” the former vice president and current Democratic presidential candidate told reporters in Prole, Iowa.
Biden’s comments highlight the delicate balance for Democrats as the U.S. economy flashes recession warning signs. In town halls and speeches across the country this week, candidates leveled blame on Trump, arguing that his aggressive and unpredictable tariff policies were prompting gloomy economic forecasts. Yet they also strained to avoid the appearance of cheering for a downturn that would inflict financial pain on millions of Americans, but potentially help their party’s political fortunes in 2020.
For more than two years, the combination of solid growth, low unemployment and a rising stock market has been a bulwark for Trump, helping him maintain the support of many independents and moderate Republicans who are turned off by his incendiary statements and pugnacious personality. According to a new Associated Press-NORC poll, a higher percentage of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the economy than his overall job performance.
“If there is a recession and the economy is doing worse, not better, than when Donald Trump started, it is hard to see how the majority of the American people, even those who have looked the other way on so many of his indiscretions, will decide to give him a shot at another four years,” said Jennifer Psaki, a former White House and campaign adviser to President Barack Obama.
Trump’s advisers privately have the same concern, particularly given that the president’s path to victory is already narrow. Well aware that a sitting president almost always gets the credit or the blame for the state of the American economy, Trump and his team have tried to point the finger elsewhere, namely in the direction of Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, accusing him of slowing growth by not lowering interest rates.
“Our Federal Reserve does not allow us to do what we must do. They put us at a disadvantage against our competition,” Trump said Thursday on Twitter.
Shifting blame to others has been a frequent tactic for Trump, even to those within his own administration. (Trump nominated Powell as Fed chair last year.)
Some Democrats said he shouldn’t get away with it this time.
“Do not allow him to escape the accountability that he deserves for what he is doing to this economy,” said Beto O’Rourke, a presidential contender and former Texas congressman. “He’ll try to blame every other person. The blame rests with Donald Trump. Now it’s incumbent on all of us to call this out.”
For months, the strong American economy has posed complications for Democrats trying to unseat Trump. Although Trump inherited an economy on the rise from his predecessor, Barack Obama, gains have indisputably continued under his watch. Unemployment is near a 50-year low at 3.7%. Consumer and business confidence has been strong, fueling record highs on Wall Street, even though the most recent signs show that consumer confidence could be ebbing.
Rather than trying to undercut those markers or predict doom ahead, most Democratic candidates have focused on economic inequalities, arguing that the wealthy were reaping the benefits far more than middle- and working-class Americans. In particular, Candidates have hammered Trump’s 2018 tax law, which gave large-scale tax cuts to the rich and corporations and more moderate benefits to the middle class. And they’ve slammed the tariffs for burdening farmers across the heartland.
One exception has been Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has openly warned about the prospect of another economic decline. In July, she wrote an essay predicting that a rise in consumer and corporate debt was imperiling the longest expansion in U.S. history.
“Whether it’s this year or next year, the odds of another economic downturn are high — and growing,” Warren wrote.
Biden in particular appeared to shift close to Warren’s warnings this week, as analysts said that a slowdown, if not a full-blown recession, could hit before next year’s election. During a two-day campaign swing through Iowa, Biden reminded voters that the Obama administration handed Trump a strong economy that could quickly come undone.
“Donald Trump inherited a growing economy from the Obama-Biden administration, just like he inherited everything in his life. And now he’s squandered it, just like he’s squandered everything he inherited in his life,” said Biden, making sure to remind voters of his own role in revitalizing the economy during the last administration.
Other Democrats were more cautious, particularly about leaving the impression that the party sees a political benefit from an economic decline.
“I just think it’s very important that we be clear as a party that we don’t want a recession,” said John Delaney, the former Maryland congressman who is mired at the bottom of the pack in the crowded Democratic primary field. “I don’t want anything to happen, even if it’s good politics, if it hurts workers.”
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