Trump Can’t Beat Obama on the Economy

It’s time for a reality check on Trump’s claims about jobs, wages and economic growth.

Recession fears may be seeping into the national conversation, but President Trump continues to boast about how great the American economy is — “the best in the world, by far,” Mr. Trump tweeted a few days ago.

Time for a reality check on Mr. Trump’s economic accomplishments, using two key measuring sticks: how well the economy is doing, compared with its performance under President Barack Obama’s leadership, and whether it has performed up to Mr. Trump’s promises.

The short answer is, the economy’s performance is not much different than it was under Mr. Obama and far short of what Mr. Trump pledged.

Take, for example, the all-important matter of jobs. Yes, many unemployed Americans are back on the payrolls. Yes, the unemployment rate continues to fall, as it did under Mr. Obama. But no, the pace of hiring has not been faster than it was during a similar period under Mr. Obama and indeed, has been even a bit slower.

In the first 30 months of the Trump presidency, jobs were added at an average rate of 191,000 a month. That’s certainly respectable, although it’s still less than the increase of 220,000 jobs a month during the final two and a half years of the Obama presidency.

Weaker Hiring Under Trump

Monthly job growth in thousands: Obama’s last 30 months versus Trump’s first 30 months.

Obama average: 220k

Trump average: 191k

300

220

200

191

100

0

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

By The New York Times | Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Moreover, on Aug. 21, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that it is likely to revise downward substantially payroll gains earlier this year, which could cut about 15,000 jobs a month from Mr. Trump’s tally.

Then there are wages, the other key component of what matters financially to everyday Americans. The rate of pay raises has continued to edge up under Mr. Trump, a typical occurrence in the latter part of an economic recovery. But more important is what is left for workers after inflation takes its bite.

And on that measure, earnings for American workers rose faster under Mr. Obama.

Not to mention that Mr. Trump has utterly failed to deliver on his wage promises. As part of pushing for the 2017 tax cut, his Council of Economic Advisers projected that the legislation would raise average pay by $4,000 a worker. No material amount of that has been realized.

After Inflation, Workers Did Better Under Obama

Private worker average hourly earnings, year-over-year percent change: Obama’s last 30 months versus Trump’s first 30 months.

+4

Nominal

+3

+2

Obama average: +1.5%

Real

(adjusted

for inflation)

+1

Trump average: +0.7%

0

–1

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

By The New York Times | Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Then there’s the overall economy. The sluggishness of growth since the 2008 recession has puzzled and dismayed policymakers. During his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump routinely promised to push this rate up; in seeking passage of his tax cut legislation, he said growth would accelerate to “4, 5 and maybe even 6 percent.”

That is not remotely what transpired. The tax cut produced a short “sugar high,” a momentary boost. Gross domestic product, after adjusting for inflation, rose at a 3.5 percent rate in the second quarter of 2018. But for 2018 as a whole, the 2.5 percent increase did not come close to the Trump administration’s projection of 3 percent.

All told, G.D.P. has risen at a 2.6 rate during Mr. Trump’s presidency, which, in fairness, is marginally higher than the 2.4 percent rate of improvement during the last 10 quarters of Mr. Obama’s tenure. Neither number is anything to brag about.

Now the economy is demonstrably slowing down, thanks in large part to Mr. Trump’s trade war. Interestingly, the business community appears more worried than consumers, who have continued to spend and who, in surveys, still express confidence.

Capital investment has ceased growing (and has even fallen a bit in recent months), manufacturing output peaked last December and business sentiment is softening.

As a result, forecasters have been marking down their projections; by the end of this year, J.P. Morgan expects G.D.P. to be increasing at only a 1.8 percent rate. (The White House seems to live in a parallel universe; it clings resolutely to its prediction of 3.2 percent growth this year.)

Should that slowdown occur, expect Mr. Trump to blame the Federal Reserve and the interest rate increases it instituted beginning in December 2015. But the Fed’s increases were modest; rates are still exceptionally low by historical standards, especially in the tenth year of a recovery.

Accordingly, private economists rank the trade war as playing a much larger role in the slowing economy than the Fed’s actions. (And, of course, now it has begun cutting rates.)

“The fears of a further slowing in growth and recession are entirely due to the trade war,” Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, told me. “If the president follows through on his current tariff threats, growth will continue to weaken to well below the economy’s 2 percent potential by early next year.”

Mr. Zandi is not alone. Private economists recently polled by Reuters gave a median 45 percent probability of the United States economy entering recession in the next two years.

Economists are notoriously poor at predicting downturns. But what’s not disputable is even if we duck a recession, when it comes to the economy, Mr. Trump still has not eclipsed Mr. Obama’s record and is many miles from making America great again.

Trump’s immigration policies have been a failure. Neither he nor Democrats have much of a solution to the current problem.

For the president, immigration is a proxy for many issues — national security, domestic security, cultural change, nationalism, even nostalgia. The president’s rhetoric inflames the left as much as it energizes his loyalists, which is exactly his purpose. Democrats oppose Trump’s policies and cry foul when he seeks to blame them. They also point out that Trump tried to use immigration during the closing weeks of last year’s midterm elections, only to see his party lose its majority in the House.

Immigration will continue to animate Trump’s core supporters and will likely be one of two pillars of his reelection campaign. The other is the economy, the issue he will look to as a bridge to other voters whose support he will need to win what looks to be an extremely competitive election. Here, too, the Democrats appear to be struggling to find their own voice on what should be a central part of a presidential campaign message.

.. The new Battleground Poll by the Tarrance Group and Lake Research Partners under the auspice of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service shows the president holding a clear advantage over Democrats in Congress on which party people trust to deal with the jobs and with the economy. Democrats need to narrow or reverse that margin.

As an insurance policy, Trump has already gone on the attack against the Democrats on the economy, playing the “socialism” card. He has seized on Democratic proposals for a Medicare-for-all health-care plan and a Green New Deal, both of which in their most expansive iterations would require a heavy dose of government intervention and regulation, warning of dire consequences to the economy.

Candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have economic messages built around populist us vs. them themes, including attacks on big corporations and wealthy individuals. Their platforms contain the broad promise to rebalance the economic scales in favor of middle- and working-class Americans, in part through a variety of new taxes on those corporations and wealthy individuals. Warren in particular has offered a fresh list of detailed policies.

Most of the Democratic presidential candidates favor new taxes on the wealthy. But at this stage, most haven’t really said how they would pay for what they propose. The Democrats are often more focused on other issues than on the centrality of the economy in the lives of voters. Another sign of a lack of consensus in the party is the inability of House Democrats to agree on the outlines of a new budget.

The president has begun to set the themes for his reelection campaign. Democrats have vowed not to make the mistakes in 2016 of focusing too much on Trump’s fitness to be president. But they can’t ignore legitimate questions about how they would govern — or how they will credibly respond to the president’s attacks on his issues of choice.

Trump the Vulnerable

A close look at the 2018 midterm results shows why he is so weak.

Now that a new Congress has taken office, the vote count from the 2018 midterms is all but final. It shows that Democrats won the national popular vote in the House races by almost nine percentage points. That margin is smashing — larger, by comparison, than in any presidential race since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election landslide.

.. Without a significant improvement in Trump’s standing, he would be a big underdog in 2020. Remember, presidential elections have higher turnout than midterms, and the larger electorate helps Democrats. At least 10 million more people — and maybe many more — are likely to vote in the next presidential election than voted in the 2018 midterms. Those extra votes, many from younger or nonwhite Americans, would make Trump’s re-election all the more difficult.

It’s not just Trump, either. If his approval rating doesn’t rise over the next two years,multiple Senate Republicans will be in trouble. I’ve long assumed that Susan Collins of Maine could win re-election for as long as she wanted. But she may not be able to do so if Trump loses Maine by 15 percentage points — which was the combined Republican deficit in Maine’s two midterm congressional races.

Then there is Cory Gardner of Colorado (where Republicans lost the 2018 popular vote deficit by more than 10 percentage points), Joni Ernst of Iowa (where the Republican deficit was four points) and Martha McSally of Arizona (where it was two points).

If Trump’s popularity were to drop at all, another batch of senators — from North Carolina, Texas and Georgia, three states where Republicans only narrowly won the 2018 popular vote — would become more endangered. Even Kansas elected a Democratic governor last year, and it will have an open Senate seat in 2020. On Friday, Pat Roberts, the Republican incumbent, announced he would not run again.

.. I know that many people, from across the ideological spectrum, believe that Trump’s standing with Republicans remains secure.

I think he is more vulnerable than many people realize.

First, there are the political risks that his current standing creates for other Republicans. It’s true that his approval rating has been notably stable, around 40 percent. It’s also notably weak. Thus the Republican whupping in the midterms.

Third, Republican support for Trump may remain broad, but it’s shallow. Trump has already faced far more intra-party criticism than most presidents. Since the midterms, it seems to be growing. Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, resigned and criticized Trump while doing so. Mitt Romney entered the Senate by once again turning against Trump. Collins and Gardner have started grumbling about the shutdown.

As Republicans begin looking nervously to 2020, their willingness to break with Trump may increase. For some of them, their political survival may depend on breaking with him. If that happens, it’s quite possible that his approval rating will begin to drift below 40 percent — and the bad news will then feed on itself.

No, none of this is guaranteed. Democrats could overreach, by quickly impeaching Trump and thereby uniting Republicans. Or Trump could end up navigating the next few months surprisingly well. But that’s not the mostly likely scenario.

The normal rules of politics really do apply to Trump. He won a shocking victory in 2016, and his opponents have lacked confidence ever since. They should no longer lack it.

Donald Trump still has great power as the president of the United States. But as presidents go, he is very weak. His opponents — Democrats, independents and Republicans who understand the damage he is doing to the country — should be feeling energized.