President Trump took office at the crest of the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. He leaves presiding over the worst labor market in modern U.S. history, as an already-sputtering economic recovery has turned negative.
No other modern president has left the U.S. with a smaller workforce than it had when they took office. Since the government started keeping track in 1939, no other president has even seen significant job losses during a single presidential term — though job growth during George W. Bush’s first four years in office was essentially flat.
During the first three years of his term, Trump often cited the economy as one of his chief accomplishments. He built “the largest, most inclusive economy in American history with record low unemployment and rising wages until a pandemic from China destroyed it,” said White House spokesperson Judd Deere.
The White House’s Council of Economic Advisers said on Twitter that the loss of 140,000 jobs in December reflected "renewed state economic shutdowns.” The unemployment rate was flat at 6.7 percent, down sharply from its high of nearly 15 percent in April but still nearly double its pre-crisis rate of 3.5 percent.
Economists are typically reluctant to give any presidents undue credit or blame for economic growth. Labor-market fundamentals and the policies of your predecessors will often have more influence than the White House does.
And the catastrophic job losses during Trump’s presidency were not sparked by his labor-market policies, at least at first. They were caused by the arrival of a deadly novel coronavirus, and the slumping consumer demand and business closures that followed.
But Democrats and Republicans have been critical of the president’s response to the fast-escalating pandemic, and many blame him for labor-market destruction that followed. The virus has now killed more than 364,000 Americans, and the U.S. routinely has one of the highest per capita infection rates in the world.
University of Tennessee economist Marianne Wanamaker, who served on Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, pointed out that the U.S. economy is actually doing better than it should be, given the nation’s high infection and death rates — a measured success she attributes to states like Tennessee that took a more relaxed approach to virus-related shutdowns.
But, Wanamaker said, there is a reason the U.S. has such high infection and death rates.
“Everybody knows that full recovery won’t come until the virus is under control. And our path to getting the virus under control right now is either people behaving in a different way or mass vaccination. And on both of those fronts, it’s pretty clear that the administration has failed to deliver.”
The administration resisted simple behavioral changes, such as wearing masks, that would have had no economic cost and have been shown to be effective in containing the virus, Wanamaker said.
“We had a big advantage in terms of getting the vaccine," Wanamaker said. "We are ahead of Europe in procuring it, but we don’t seem to be able to actually get the shot in people’s arms.”
Trump took “unprecedented actions" this year to provide much-needed economic relief to Americans and small businesses impacted by the coronavirus, said Deere, the White House spokesperson. Those steps "laid a firm foundation for a ‘Super V’ recovery,” he said.
Under Trump, the leisure and hospitality sector lost 2.9 million jobs, and retail lost another 659,000, losses that are not surprising amid a retail apocalypse and an actual apocalypse. But the pandemic and the crises that came with it also completely erased Trump’s much-touted gains in blue-collar sectors such as manufacturing, which is down 60,000 jobs over his term, and mining, which is down 19,000.
The only category where the president does not lag behind most of his predecessors? Transportation and warehousing. That sector, which pays less than either manufacturing or mining, has added more than half a million jobs since Trump took office. Thanks to the boom in online retail during the lockdown era, it is close to recovering all the jobs it lost at the start of the pandemic recession.
Howard University and AFL-CIO economist William Spriggs said the president’s response to the pandemic had turned what might have been a low passing mark into a failing grade.
According to Spriggs, a wartime-style mobilization against the virus would have kept millions of people employed as cleaners and contact tracers while reducing the spread of the global pandemic.
“He didn’t pump enough money to state and local governments,” Spriggs said, “and we lost more jobs in state and local government than we did the whole of the Great Recession.”