“We’ve fulfilled so many of our promises, everything we’ve wanted to do we’re doing. Unemployment is at a record low, jobs are flowing back into the country.”
— President Trump, remarks in a robo-call for Sen. Luther Strange, Aug. 14, 2017
In a recording for Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.), who faced a competitive primary, President Trump made a rather bold statement — that “unemployment is at a record low.”
We realize the standards for facts in robo-calls is rather low — Trump has fulfilled only six of 60 key promises he made before election — but this is still a rather startling claim, especially for a president who took office only about seven months ago.
The short answer is that this is false. The unemployment rate in July was 4.3 percent. It was 4.8 percent in January, when Trump took office, so it was already rather low.
Moreover, six of the past 12 presidents could brag of an unemployment rate lower than 4.3 percent. It was as low as 4.2 percent under George W. Bush, 3.9 percent under Bill Clinton, 4.2 percent under Richard Nixon, 3.4 percent under Lyndon B. Johnson, 2.5 percent under Dwight D. Eisenhower and 2.7 percent under Harry Truman.
The current rate is the lowest in 16 years — at the start of George W. Bush’s presidency — and sometimes Trump gets that right, sometimes he gets it wrong. “The unemployment rate is at a 16-year-low,” he said on Aug. 11. That same day, he also said: “The unemployment rate just came out. It’s the lowest it’s been in 18 years.”
The striking thing about Trump is that even though the unemployment rate continues to fall, his approval rating continues to fall. The latest Gallup tracking poll shows Trump’s approval rating fell to 34 percent. Generally, a low unemployment rate bolsters a president’s approval rating.
When the unemployment rate hit 2.5 percent in 1953, about six months into his presidency, Eisenhower’s approval rating was about 70 percent in the Gallup poll. Ronald Reagan’s approval rating went up above 60 percent as the unemployment rate fell to the low of his presidency, 5.3 percent. Bill Clinton’s approval rating exceeded 65 percent as the unemployment rate fell to 3.9 percent.
The closest analogy to Trump’s situation is Johnson’s. The unemployment rate was below 4 percent for much of LBJ’s presidency and even fell to 3.4 percent, but his approval rating kept sinking, reaching a low of 35 percent. LBJ, of course, found himself mired in the Vietnam War and mass protests — and his low came in the final year of a five-year presidency. Trump is faring as poorly in his first year.
Where could Trump get the notion that unemployment is lower than it has ever been? At a news conference on Aug. 15, commenting on the Charlottesville confrontation, he remarked: “We have the highest employment numbers we’ve ever had in the history of our country.” This is an especially silly statistic, since it mostly reflects the fact that the U.S. population keeps growing; even recessions just put a brief dent in growth of employment. But maybe that explains why he claimed a record. (The White House declined to comment.)
At The Fact Checker, we have a somewhat jaundiced view of a president’s impact on the employment rate, especially so early in a term. The unemployment rate reflects long-term economic trends, some of which can be affected by federal policy, but the impact normally takes years to be felt.
One reason the unemployment rate may not resonate now is that Trump spent his presidential campaign attacking it as phony. He repeatedly offered a Four-Pinocchio claim that tens of millions of people were not being counted in the statistics, even though the vast majority have not been interested in working because they are retired, disabled or in school. He now embraces a statistic he previously rejected as a falsehood.
The Pinocchio Test
Given that Trump on some occasions has correctly identified the unemployment rate as at a 16-year-low, we are inclined not to rate this claim and perhaps chalk it up to over-exuberant campaign spiel. (We try not to play gotcha at The Fact Checker.) That’s of course no excuse for a president, who always should strive for accuracy. Indeed, we can’t simply dismiss this as a one-time flub, given that it was recorded and sent to thousands of phone numbers in Alabama. In any case, exaggerating about the unemployment rate is not going to enhance the president’s approval rating.
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