It's the economy, stupid. That was the message at the heart of Bill Clinton's successful campaign for US president in 1992. The economy will again loom large in the 2020 race for the White House but it's just possible that the incumbent, Donald Trump, will get a helping hand from a very unlikely source: the coronavirus disease, Covid-19.
Taking the data at face value, the US economy is doing pretty well. Trump has been understandably quick to claim credit for that, as any US president would.
It might therefore be logical to assume that Trump's re-election prospects would suffer if the spread of Covid-19 were to have such an impact on the global economy that it began to negatively affect US economic data, or if a coronavirus-related dent in American corporate earnings weighed on lofty US equity prices. But that might be to draw the wrong conclusion.
Minutes of the Federal Reserve's January 28-29 meeting revealed that participants "generally saw the distribution of risks to the outlook for (US) economic activity as somewhat more favourable than at the previous meeting", while acknowledging that the threat of the coronavirus "warranted close watching".
With the US unemployment rate at a very low 3.6 per cent and no sign that the Fed has concerns about inflation taking a marked upturn, US central bank policy looks to be on autopilot for the time being.
Indeed, as the Fed's vice-chairman Richard Clarida told CNBC last Thursday: "The fundamentals in the US are strong: sustained growth, strongest labour market in 50 years, price stability with inflation close to our goal. It's a good picture."
But if the spread of coronavirus starts to darken this "good picture", then the Fed would have to disengage the autopilot. It would surely act to ease US monetary policy in an attempt to support the economy, just as central banks across Asia are already acting in the face of Covid-19.
While a strong US economy could yet falter in the face of the coronavirus and Trump's re-election campaign could lose momentum, even his bitterest political enemies would struggle to lay the blame for Covid-19 at his door. Yet, such an economic stumble could elicit a policy response from the Fed that would play well in the White House.
After all, it's no secret that Trump feels the Fed has been too quick to hike interest rates and too slow to cut them.
On the other hand, if over the next few months, the outbreak is contained and the coronavirus struggles to survive as the northern hemisphere heats up going into summer, US economic data may well remain strong.
In this scenario, with the clock running down towards the November 3 presidential election, the Fed would have less and less wiggle room to adopt a more hawkish approach, for fear of being accused of interfering in the political process. That too might suit Trump.
Then there's the matter of the US-China trade deal. Trump, who has made much of his personal relationship with President Xi Jinping, has also talked up his success in reaching the phase one agreement that commits China to purchasing an additional US$200 billion in US goods and services over two years.
Earlier this month, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Xi had recently reassured Trump that China would still meet its purchasing targets, despite the coronavirus epidemic.
If the coming months show that to be the case, expect Trump to shout it from the rooftops. In addition, if many of those Chinese orders prove to be for US grain, it will play very well for Trump in the Midwest battleground states in November.
And even if it transpires that China is not quite fulfilling its purchasing obligations in 2020, Trump will have an obvious answer.
The White House could simply explain that away by citing the clear impact of the coronavirus epidemic on the Chinese economy.
Clause 2 of Article 7.6 of the trade agreement could be invoked. That allows for consultations between the two parties if an "unforeseeable event" delays one side or the other from complying with its obligations. The Covid-19 outbreak could surely be in that category.
The economy will loom large in the US presidential contest. It always does. But the coronavirus may also have a role to play this time. Paradoxically, perhaps, the pathogen may ease Trump's path to four more years in the Oval Office.
Neal Kimberley is a commentator on macroeconomics and financial markets
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