Among economists, this picture is described as good but not great. There’s a lot of applause that the U.S. economy has been growing for over a decade now -- a record expansion. The official U.S. unemployment rate down to a half-century low of 3.5 percent after a record 108 months of job growth that has seen many minority women make historic gains.
But whether this picture is good enough to give President Trump an edge in the 2020 election is an open question.
“A 2 percent economy is fine for economists, but that is a presidential recession,” said Joseph Brusuelas, chief economist at accounting firm RSM.
Trump vowed that growth would top 3 percent (or even 4 or 5 percent), and he has yet to hit that bar. In fact, Trump is heading into election 2020 with an economy that looks a lot like the one he blasted as weak at the end of Obama’s presidency: Growth is decent but not spectacular, and manufacturing is in a recession, just as it was for much of 2015 and 2016.
Manufacturing and agriculture are clearly in trouble right now. Manufacturing is already in a recession and the latest data out this week indicate it is probably getting worse. In August, about half of the manufacturing sectors reported problems. By September, over 80 percent were contracting and layoffs have started, according to the closely watched Institute for Supply Management report.
These industries are not big parts of the overall economy. But politically, they are front and center in a number of key swing states. It is perhaps no surprise that Trump’s approval rating has fallen sharply in states like Iowa and Wisconsin where these industries remain crucial.
It’s telling that only one county in Wisconsin has a lower unemployment rate today than a year ago. Every other county is higher. Similarly in Iowa, 65 percent of counties have seen their unemployment rate rise, albeit from low levels, but the trend is up in some places even as the national unemployment rate falls.
These pockets of pain in the economy are stemming mainly from two factors: Trump’s trade war and deeply slowing growth abroad. No one has a clue when the trade war will end and all the uncertainty has caused business leaders to cut back on spending. Business investment fell in the second quarter, and the early indications are that it isn’t recovering.
But the bulk of the U.S. economy still looks OK. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of the economy and that remains healthy. Consumer confidence has slipped from its record highs a year ago, but it’s not in “alarm bell” territory yet. Industries like health care, tech and business remain in pretty good shape and they continue to add tens of thousands of workers each month. Even home sales, which looked anemic earlier this year, is bouncing back to life, another sign that Americans are still willing to open their wallets and spend on big-ticket items.
“While growth in employment (and broader activity) has slowed, it is not collapsing,” said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics.
Experts who worry about a recession say that the weakness in the manufacturing sector could easily spill over into more industries. They argue that businesses have already cut back on spending on equipment and properties and the next move is to start axing workers. Once that happens, consumers tend to quickly cut back on their spending.
But that tipping point has yet to materialize. Instead, most data shows that consumers remain resilient, even in the face of stock market swings and the start of an impeachment inquiry. A big part of that resilience is coming from the strong jobs market. As long as Americans feel they can easily get a job, they tend to keep spending.
There was a lot of fear ahead of the release of the September jobs report on Friday, but it ended up showing the same story that’s been playing out for months: An economy that’s cooling but not falling off a cliff. Many blue-collar sectors look weak (including the stalling auto sector), but the far bigger service sector remains strong (with the exception of retail).
“Employment growth in the goods-producing sector continues to decline, but service-sector growth holding steady,” tweeted Nick Bunker, chief economist at Indeed.
A key difference between the economy now and the 2016 election is that 6.2 million more Americans have jobs today than in December 2016. The unemployment rates for Hispanic Americans and African Americans are sitting at record lows. Those workers -- and their families -- are financially better off than they were before, although whether they credit Trump or another factor for their gains remains to be seen.
Trump appears to be gambling that the gains in the job market and a still growing economy will be enough to counterbalance the pockets of pain in manufacturing and agriculture.