SOUTH BEND – “It’s the economy, stupid.”
That’s the famous admonition to Bill Clinton’s campaign staffers attributed to James Carville, the colorful Clinton strategist in the 1992 upset of President George H.W. Bush. Bush, a very good president, especially in foreign affairs, handling so well the collapse of the old Soviet Union, had “unbeatable” approval ratings a year before.
Well, it was the economy, or rather the perception of the economy and what Bush was doing about it, that enabled Clinton to win. Two points of clarification:

1. The headquarters message posted by Carville actually had no “It’s.” It was simply, “The economy, stupid.”

2. The brief recession during Bush’s presidency actually was over, recovery underway before the 1992 campaign started.
But Carville was right. Clinton won. The perception of how the economy is doing and what the president is doing about it is a potent political factor in presidential politics.
How about now? There will be a recession. I’m no economist. But I guarantee it. There will be a recession. President Trump has brushed off the possibility because, “We’re doing tremendously well. Our consumers are rich. I gave a tremendous tax cut and they’re loaded up with money.”
Whether or not you consumers out there feel rich and loaded up with money, President Trump hasn’t repealed the economic cycle. Recessions come. They always do. Long periods of economic expansion – and we’re in the longest such expansion now in the nation’s history – always end.
There will be a recession. The question is when, not if. Will it come before, during or after the 2020 presidential campaign? And will it be severe or mild, long or short?
If it’s the economy, stupid, will the perception of how the economy is doing help or hurt President Trump’s reelection prospects? Will his trade wars and deficit spending trigger economic woes, bringing the start of recession or at least the fear of imminent downturn? Some economists say there already is a farm recession and that a manufacturing slump gives dire warning.
Will he be credited with continuation of the longest economic expansion in U.S. history, going back to June of 2009, when recovery from the Great Recession began? Some economists say the inevitable next recession won’t come until the end of 2021, well after the 2020 campaign.
What economists say, either way, won’t be as significant as what most voters perceive. President Harry Truman once said he wanted to find a one-armed economist. He was tired of economic advisors saying, on the one hand, this; on the other hand, that.
Presidents often get blamed for or credited with economic conditions that are viewed wrongly or over which they have little control. As with President George H.W. Bush in 1992, the perception, even if not supported by the economic facts, is what counts.
There is dispute now over how much credit Trump deserves for continuing expansion after he inherited an economy rebounding from the Great Recession. A Forbes analysis of job statistics as the upturn reached record length found that 810,000 more jobs were added during the final 29 months of Barack Obama’s presidency than during the first 29 months of Trump’s presidency.
So, should the upturn be credited to Obama, with Trump viewed as lucky to have inherited it and to blame for slowing down the pace? Or should Trump be credited with the continuation of what he inherited, with his tax cut and other policies staving off that inevitable recession?
What if a Democrat is elected president in 2020? Possible, though far from certain. Would a recession so many economists see coming in 2021 be blamed on Trump or on the Democrat who replaced him?
It’s the economy, stupid, and how the state of the economy is perceived can be stupid. 

Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.