Trump’s jobs record fell short of promises even before the virus
When Donald Trump ran for president, he boasted he would be the “greatest jobs president that God ever created.”
Now, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump heads into the November election on track to be the first U.S. leader since World War II to oversee a net loss of jobs during a four-year term.
The virus upended one of the nation's strongest jobs markets in decades and triggered the sharpest recession since at least the 1940s. As a result, since Trump’s inauguration, the nation has shed a net 4.7 million positions as of August and more than 13 million people are unemployed, the rough equivalent of the combined populations of New York City, Chicago and Houston.
But even before COVID-19, Trump’s job gains were nearly keeping up with the pace during former President Barack Obama’s second term. And he was falling short of his 2016 campaign pledge to create 25 million jobs over the next decade.
On Friday, the Labor Department is scheduled to provide its last big look at employment before the Nov. 3 election. Economists project an 850,000 gain in nonfarm payrolls in September and expect the unemployment rate to notch down to 8.2% which would mark a moderating rebound and leave jobs still almost 11 million short of the pre-crisis level.
The figures will be the backdrop against which Trump and Democrat Joe Biden argue they’re best positioned to revive the economy. The two are scheduled to face off in their first debate Tuesday in Cleveland, Ohio, and the economy is expected to be a focus.
For Trump, his record on the economy ranges from the quality of jobs created to the impact of policies he enacted on taxes and trade.
The president often points to broad-based job gains on his watch before the pandemic as evidence of his economic stewardship. Through February, employment had increased by 6.8 million since January 2017, and the unemployment rate had fallen to a 50-year low.
Women, people of color and the disabled all benefited. So did White men without college degrees, a core Trump constituency.
But those pre-pandemic job gains were “right in line with what had occurred in the six years leading up to when Mr. Trump became president,” said Jay Bryson, chief economist at Wells Fargo & Co.
Job growth was slightly slower in Trump’s first three years before Covid than it was during the last three years of the Obama administration, when the economy added 2.7 million jobs a year on average. Under Trump, that average was 2.2 million, until this year’s tumult more than wiped out the gains.
Trump’s signature legislative achievement, the 2017 tax reform bill, reduced taxes for the wealthy and corporations, but it didn’t translate into big gains in good jobs for average Americans.
Anil Kumar, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, estimates the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act increased job growth by 0.24 percentage points in 2018, with a smaller, but still positive impact in 2019.
Pre-pandemic, the economy was adding jobs across a range of industries. Construction, mining and logging were faring especially well.
But despite Trump’s many promises of a renaissance for American factories, manufacturing had less-robust gains. The 483,000 jobs created from January 2017 to February 2020 were more than wiped out in March and April as the virus spread. About 1.4 million people lost their jobs in the sector and by August, only about half had returned.
Another signature Trump policy, the trade war with China, actually hurt some of the manufacturers and farmers it was supposed to help. The Tax Foundation estimates if tariffs remain, 179,800 full-time equivalent jobs could be lost.
Many of the jobs that have been created pay low wages. Of the positions added from January 2017 to February 2020 in the private sector, 41% were in leisure, hospitality, education and health services. Earnings in those areas average less than $1,000 per week.
After rising steadily during most of Obama’s second term, the U.S. Private Sector Job Quality Index which measures the ratio of high-quality jobs to low-paying ones had fallen before the pandemic. The gauge, created by researchers at institutions including Cornell University, hit a record low in April 2019.
Trump is now promising to create at least 10 million new jobs in 10 months. That could prove a daunting challenge and would likely hinge on developing and deploying a safe, effective vaccine.
While presidents are often either credited or blamed for the state of the economy, the overall business cycle, global forces like the virus and the Federal Reserve also play a part. The Fed lowered interest rates to near zero earlier this year and expects them to stay low for several years to come.
“In an economy as large and diverse as the U.S., it’s hard for a president to pull all these levers to make a meaningful difference,” said Brett Ryan, senior U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank AG. “I don’t think there would have been that much of a difference between job growth of Hillary versus Trump.”