The central question going into Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention was how he’d spin his disastrous record — which now includes more than 200,000 Americans dead of coronavirus, and an unemployment rate above 10 percent. And Trump quickly made his strategy clear: Take credit for something he didn’t do, and dodge blame for something he did do.
Let’s start with what he didn’t do. The convention was suffused with nostalgia for the economy of six months ago. “Before the China virus came in,” Trump said wistfully, the US “produced the best unemployment numbers for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans ever recorded.” And he’s right, in a way. Unemployment was low. Wages were rising. GDP was growing. The stock market was shattering records.
But that wasn’t a boom Trump created. It was a boom Trump inherited, and one that slowed and then collapsed on his watch.
During the first three years of the Trump administration, the economy added slightly fewer jobs per month than during the last three years of the Obama administration — 182,000 jobs a month vs. 224,000 jobs a month. The first three years of the Trump economy look like the last three years of the Obama economy, albeit with somewhat less job growth.
If Trump’s economic policy was so masterful, why is it impossible to pinpoint his takeover on a simple chart of job growth? You can see the economy turn around under Obama. You can’t see job growth accelerate under Trump — because it didn’t. To the extent presidents deserve credit for economic trends, Trump is taking credit for someone else’s work.