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White House punts economic update as election draws near

WASHINGTON — The White House took the unusual step on Thursday 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 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.

President Donald 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.

Since then, views on the economy have reversed dramatically.

The May poll found that 70% of Americans call the nation’s economy poor, while just 29% say it’s good.

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