The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s job numbers trail Obama’s in 2016 — and for that he can blame himself

President Trump talks about NAFTA as he holds a news conference with President Sauli Niinistö of Finland, on Monday, in Washington. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

President Trump will, at some point soon, tout the August jobs numbers released on Friday morning as showing continued growth and adding to a million-plus jobs added since he took office. Sure, the numbers were lower than expected, but they were still up, thrown on a big pile that Trump likes to point to as an example of his effectiveness in office.

In fact, Trump’s first eight months in office have seen the most new jobs added since the first eight months of President Bill Clinton’s, and trail only Clinton, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter in the most new jobs through August of the first year of his first term. (George H.W. Bush saw slightly fewer new jobs in a less-populous United States, but we’ll set that aside for now.)

Like the proverbial ocean liner, though, the American economy turns slowly. It’s worth considering those figures for the first years of Barack Obama and Trump in the context of the years that preceded them. In 2008, the year before Obama took office, the economy was tanking thanks to the recession. Last year, the economy was pushing forward in the slow-but-steady pace that defined the latter years of Obama’s presidency.

Notice, in fact, that the number of jobs added in 2016 from January through August was actually higher than the number of jobs created during that same period this year. In other words, Trump’s underperforming Obama’s final year in office.

There’s an important caveat, though. Looking only at nongovernment jobs, Trump’s actually doing better than Obama did in 2016. (“Doing better than” implies a tight link between presidential activity and job creation, which is itself something that can be fought about.) Through August 2016, the economy had added about 1.36 million jobs in the private sector. This year, it has added a bit over 1.4 million.

We can see how that works month by month. Only in April of last year did the number of government jobs decline.

(It’s worth noting that the number of government jobs actually declined over the course of Obama’s presidency, after increasing significantly under George W. Bush.)

In 2017, half of the months of the year saw a decline in government jobs.

Since 1993, the only years in which the number of government jobs fell during the first eight months were the years following the recession (save 2010, in which the government staffed up for the Census). Beyond that, the year with the lowest government job creation was 2017.

This isn’t an accident. Trump’s focus on cutting government has included a draconian federal budget proposal and going so far as to claim that he was leaving Senate-confirmable positions open to slash staff. But if the economy had added the same number of government jobs in August that it did on average under the first eight months of 2016, this month’s report would have seen 192,000 jobs added* instead of 156,000 — well over the 180,000-job target that economists expected.

Had the economy added the same average number of government jobs during the first eight months of 2017 as it did during those months in 2016, Trump would have seen about 168,000 more jobs added this year — enough to push him past what the economy added during the first eight months of Obama’s last year in office.

But it didn’t. The result? Since Clinton took office 25 years ago (including 2017), only in nine of those years have fewer jobs been created in the first eight months of the year.

* For those keeping score at home, this is an addition of 22,600 government jobs instead of a drop of 13,000.