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White House punts economic update as election draws near

FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2020, file photo President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally at The Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs, Colo. As the economy faces a once-in-a-century recession, with more than 38 million people out of work, Trump is increasingly talking up a future recovery that probably won't materialize until after the November election. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

WASHINGTON — The White House has taken the unusual step of deciding not to release an updated economic forecast as planned this year, a fresh sign of the administration’s anxiety about how the coronavirus has ravaged the nation just months before the election.

The decision, which was confirmed Thursday by a senior administration official who was not authorized to publicly comment on the plan, came amid intensifying signals of the pandemic’s grim economic toll.

The U.S. economy shrank at a faster-than-expected annual rate of 5 percent during the first quarter, the Commerce Department reported Thursday. At least 2.1 million Americans lost their jobs last week, meaning an astonishing 41 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since shutdowns intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus began in mid-March.

Trump argues that the economy will rebound later this year or in 2021 and that voters should give him another term in office to oversee the expansion. But the delay of the updated midyear economic forecast, typically released in July or August, was an indication that the administration doesn’t want to bring attention to the pandemic’s impact anytime soon.

“It’s a sign that the White House does not anticipate a major recovery in employment and growth prior to the election and that it has essentially punted economic policy over to the Fed and the Congress,” said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist for the consultant RSM.

The senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, maintained that the underlying economic data would be too uncertain to convey a meaningful picture about the recovery.

But the political stakes of a weakening economy are hard to overstate, especially in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin that are critical to the president’s reelection.

According to an AP-NORC poll conducted in May, 49 percent of Americans approve of how the president is handling the economy. That has dipped over the last two months, from 56 percent who said so in March.

Still, the economy remains a particular strong point for Trump. Before the outbreak began, and even as the virus started sending shock waves through the economy, approval of how he had handled the issue was the highest it’s been over the course of his presidency.

Since then, views on the economy have reversed dramatically.

The May poll found that 70 percent of Americans call the nation’s economy poor, while just 29 percent say it’s good. In January, 67 percent called the economy good.

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, and liberal economists swiftly seized on the report’s delay to argue that Trump is seeking to avoid putting his administration’s imprint on bad economic news in the months before the Nov. 3 vote.

“This desperate attempt to keep the American people in the dark about the economy’s performance is not only an acknowledgement that Trump knows he’s responsible for some of the most catastrophic economic damage in American history, but also a sign of how stunningly out of touch he is with hard working Americans,” said Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesman.

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