“The Heritage Foundation just came out recently, and they said that we’ve already implemented 64 percent of our top agenda items. And that’s ahead of anybody, including Ronald Reagan.”
— Trump, in a round table on taxes in Las Vegas, June 23, 2018
These statistics from the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Federation of Independent Business and the Heritage Foundation seem to back up Trump’s bullish claims about his presidency.
Trump often describes his record in salesman superlatives, and the reports he’s citing — the “highest level … in history,” an “all-time high,” “ahead of anybody” — fit the bill nicely. At least on the surface, that is.
Digging into the reports reveals that Trump is mischaracterizing key findings. Or the numbers change month-to-month in a way that neutralizes the president’s claim. Or the reports are based on a limited and arguably insufficient slice of data.
Trump has repeated each of these claims at least a few times, especially the one about 95 percent of manufacturers having an optimistic outlook. That line appears 12 times in The Fact Checker’s database of Trump’s false or misleading claims.
Let’s break it down.
The National Association of Manufacturers, a trade group that has been surveying members for 20 years, in June released a report covering the second quarter. The group surveyed 568 members from May 22 to June 5 and found that a record 95.1 percent had a somewhat positive or very positive outlook.
“It is clear that businesses continue to experience highly elevated levels of activity as a result of pro-growth policies like tax reform, with optimism once again breaking records,” the NAM report said. Medium and large manufacturers’ confidence had increased to 20-year highs, but small manufacturers’ confidence had decreased to 89.5 percent, from 94.5 percent in the first quarter.
NAM members make up 6 percent of U.S. manufacturing firms, so the group’s quarterly survey gives a narrow snapshot of the industry. The trade group declined to say whether its members are surveyed randomly.
Yet the president wrongly suggests that the survey results reflect the views of all manufacturers. Unless the survey is of manufacturers randomly sampled from a broad universe of firms — which it is not — his claim is incorrect.
Trump also has pointed to a monthly survey by the National Federation of Independent Business, a conservative group that unsuccessfully argued before the Supreme Court in 2012 to strike down the Affordable Care Act.
In May, the NFIB’s index of small-business optimism rose to the second-highest level in its 45-year history. It wasn’t an “all-time high,” as Trump claimed. “The new tax code is returning money to the private sector where history makes clear it will be better invested than by a government bureaucracy,” the group said. “Regulatory costs, as significant as taxes, are being reduced.”
The NFIB says it has hundreds of thousands of members, 88 percent of which have no more than 19 employees. The U.S. Small Business Administration says there are 30 million small businesses in the country, accounting for nearly half of the private-sector workforce.
The NFIB survey Trump cited was conducted in May. The group mailed questionnaires to a sample of 5,000 members, and 562 of them, or 11 percent, returned “usable responses.” The report doesn’t say how the 5,000 members were selected or what qualified as a “usable response.”
Like the NAM survey, this index provides a narrow insight into the small-business sector. On top of that, Trump mischaracterized its findings, and the numbers weren’t as favorable to the administration the following month. In June, the index fell to the sixth-highest level in 45 years.
Trump also has cited a report by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, that congratulates him for “embracing” 64 percent of the group’s recommendations. Heritage laid out 334 proposals in a policy blueprint called the “Mandate for Leadership.”
Some of them are vague, such as “strengthen enforcement” by the Department of Homeland Security and “reform vetting of individuals seeking entry into the U.S.” Heritage gave Trump credit for adopting both of them as of January 2018, even though Trump continues to complain about the high volume of southwest border apprehensions and continues to press Congress for stricter vetting measures for potential immigrants.
Some of Heritage’s recommendations seem like freebies, such as “reform the way [the Department of Defense] operates,” for which Trump also got a check mark. Some of the things Trump got credit for haven’t happened. Heritage gave the president credit for eliminating the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which doesn’t expire until Sept. 30 and which Congress could renew. The group gave Trump preemptive credit for a number of proposals included in his budget, which had not passed when Heritage issued its report card in January.
In any event, Trump says Heritage gave him credit for “implementing” — a stronger word than “embracing” — 64 percent of his own agenda. But the group was talking about its own “Mandate for Leadership.” (Trump has failed to deliver on many of his key campaign promises, according to our Trump Promise Tracker.)
Trump also boasted that he had been implementing these ideas at a faster rate than President Reagan. The Heritage report compared Trump’s 64 percent rate with Reagan’s 49 percent after his first year in office. But Heritage ended up issuing 2,000 recommendations to Reagan and gave him credit for adopting or attempting “nearly two-thirds.” That’s roughly the same as 64 percent, except 2,000 recommendations for Reagan is a much larger baseline than 334 for Trump. The Heritage Foundation did not respond to our request for comment.
The Pinocchio Test
These statistics — on the surface — dovetail with some of Trump’s favorite talking points. But they’re fleeting from one month to the next, or they’re based on opaquely drawn and relatively small samples, or they come from groups known for their conservative leanings. On top of this, Trump blurs the nuance and ends up mischaracterizing what was already a dubious statistic.
A heavy dose of salt is in order, as are Two Pinocchios.
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