President Trump arrives for his first address before a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28. (Jabin Botsford /The Washington Post)

Credit for President Trump’s surprise electoral victory in November is often given to his ferocious excoriation of the existing economic order. His speeches regularly focused on bad trade deals, jobs shipped overseas and an economy that was barely off the mat, leaving regular Americans behind. The extent to which those arguments are the cause of Trump’s win is debatable — exit polls showed that those worried about the economy broadly preferred Hillary Clinton — but the plight of the white working class became central to Trump’s campaign narrative.

A recurring question in the wake of that incessant pessimism has been what would happen once Trump took the reins. After all, the economy of 2016 was far stronger than the economy America saw at the tail-end of the recession, and Trump would be taking office in an environment where unemployment was low and growth was consistent, if modest.

On Tuesday night, Trump offered something of an answer: He’d continue to depict the nation’s economy as faltering, cherry-picking data to reinforce his argument that he’s walking into the White House with the economy in a near-shambles.

President Trump promised to lower taxes, combat terrorism and replace the Affordable Care Act in a speech to a joint session of Congress, Feb. 28. Here are key moments from that speech. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

In one stretch, Trump offered a series of data points that demand more context. “Tonight, as I outline the next steps we must take as a country,” he said, “we must honestly acknowledge the circumstances we inherited.”

“Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force.” This is true and was often cited over the past eight years as an example of why the economy was softer than it looked — people who could be working but weren’t. The reasons for this, though, are complex, and include the fact that baby boomers have been aging out of the workforce.

As our fact-checkers note, the vast majority of the people who aren’t in the labor force aren’t in the labor force because they don’t want to labor — they’re not looking for a job.

“Over 43 million people are now living in poverty, and over 43 million Americans are on food stamps.” It’s true, too, that 43 million Americans live in poverty — but that’s down from nearly 49 million people four years ago. That’s a drop from about 15 percent of the population to about 13 percent — about where it was for most of George W. Bush’s presidency.

In 2013, there were also about 48 million people on food stamps, which was also a side effect of the end of the recession. That figure has now declined nearly 12 percent — but is still higher than before the economic collapse.

“More than 1 in 5 people in their prime working years are not working.” The labor force participation rate for people ages 25 to 54 years is 81.5 percent, meaning that 18.5 percent are out of the labor force. Another 4.1 percent are in the labor force but unemployed. That means that 78.2 percent of people in that age group are working — and 21.8 percent aren’t.

But there are a lot of reasons that people in prime working years may not be working. Most of that 18.5 percent that’s out of the workforce — like the overall figure of those out of the labor force — aren’t looking for work. Why not? School. Disability. Taking care of a family member. Trump implies that this 21.8 percent who aren’t working are all in the boat of that 4.1 percent who are in the labor force and can’t find work. They aren’t. And that 4.1 percent figure is relatively good by historic standards; it’s actually lower than it was for most of the 1980s, for example.

(Worth noting that in a news release sent out by the White House, this was described as “Nearly 1 in 4 Americans in their prime-working years are not working.”)

“We have the worst financial recovery in 65 years.” True — but we also had the worst economic situation since the Great Depression.

“In the last 8 years, the past administration has put on more new debt than nearly all other presidents combined.” Also true — but much of that debt was accrued as the government scrambled to stem the effects of the recession. At the beginning of 2008, the country had $9.4 trillion in publicly held debt. By the first quarter of 2013, it was $16.7 trillion — and by the third quarter of last year had added about $2.8 trillion more.

“We’ve lost more than one-fourth of our manufacturing jobs since NAFTA was approved, and we’ve lost 60,000 factories since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.” In January 1994, about 16.9 million Americans worked in manufacturing. Now, 12.3 million do. But the drop-off didn’t begin until the end of 2000; between January 1994 and January 2001, the number of manufacturing jobs increased by 200,000.

A key factor in the decline of manufacturing jobs is the rise of automation. Robots, if you will. The Brookings Institution calls automation “the primary force behind lost manufacturing jobs.”

The figure on factory closures is out of date. In the first quarter of 2002, right after China joined the WTO, there were 388,813 private manufacturing establishments in the United States. By the second quarter of 2016 — the most recent date available — there were 344,580, a decline of about 44,000. But it’s not clear how many of those factories were closed thanks to job loss to China as opposed to other factors, including automation.

That it takes so much more work to contextualize Trump’s comments about the economy is precisely why Trump offers them. Again, there’s no question that there are Americans who are struggling in the current economy, and there’s no question that Trump sincerely wants to address those issues. But it’s also the case that Trump’s modus operandi is to present a worst-case scenario and offer a sweeping better result without necessarily working through the details that flesh out the middle. He does it with crime; he does it with immigration. He did it with the economy.

Notice that Trump doesn’t talk about the low unemployment rate or the declines in poverty or that wages are ticking up or that the decline in the size of the labor force has halted. Not the story he wants to tell, any more than he wants to tell the stories of successful immigrants or the long-term downward trend in violent crime.


So if you inherit a moderately good economy but need to still show improvement, how do you do it? You present normal numbers as unusually good ones. Here’s a snippet of a news release from the White House sent out during the speech.

Trump was president for 11.5 days in January. His predecessor was president for 19.5 days. Four months last year, the economy added more jobs than were added in January. The economy was generally healthy, and the economy remains generally healthy. If we’re on the right track now, we’ve been on the right track for about four years.

The only thing that’s changed substantially is how the American president talks about it.