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)
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) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

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% 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% of Americans approve of how the president is handling the economy. That has dipped over the last two months, from 56% who said so in March.