After Friday’s jobs report came out, President Trump did something unusual: He quoted from the New York Times.
“We ran out of words to describe how good the jobs numbers are,” Trump quoted in a tweet, noting that the source was the Times but without appending his standard pejorative of “failing.”
The tweet was also rare because it managed to outdo Trump on hyperbole, something that is hard to accomplish even if you try. But by Monday, Trump had regained that crown, declaring on Twitter that the economy was “in many ways … the greatest economy in the HISTORY of America.” By Tuesday morning, that had been softened, but only slightly.
As our Glenn Kessler noted, that’s down a trillion from his State of the Union address.
What’s really remarkable about that tweet, though, is the other metric Trump cites as evidence that this may be the best economy in U.S. history: jobs. The “record jobs numbers” are indeed records in a few ways: a low in the unemployment rate since 2000, the lowest black unemployment rate since the government started tracking the figure in the early 1970s, more people employed than ever before (because the population keeps growing) and more job openings than unemployed people for the first time on record (though that only goes back to December 2000).
But the jobs numbers are also “phony” — at least according to Donald Trump.
On the campaign trail, he repeatedly disparaged the unemployment rate under President Barack Obama, suggesting that it was artificially low or manipulated.
“You see what’s happening with real unemployment, not the phony unemployment numbers that you read, real unemployment,” Trump said at a rally in September 2016. “People that can’t get jobs and have given up looking for jobs.” He was talking about the labor force participation rate, which, at the time he was speaking, was actually higher than it was last month. The real unemployment rate was, instead, in the double digits.
What Trump pledged wasn’t a further drop in the unemployment rate; it was a surge in the real metric for economic success, economic growth — which is to say an increase in gross domestic product.
“Strength will also require growth,” Trump said in October 2016. “Right now our economy isn’t growing at all. We had only around 1 percent growth last quarter. GDP a disaster.” Obama never had a year with 3 percent growth, Trump noted, promising 4 percent growth down the road.
Then he was inaugurated — and the economic trends largely continued. Steady job growth, a steady decline in the unemployment rate and a slightly better GDP.
Trump wasn’t at 4 percent growth — or even 3 percent annual growth. But he did have a plunging unemployment rate that got a lot of headlines — just as Obama did.
So what did Trump do? He worked with what he had. Gone were the protests about how the unemployment rate didn’t capture the whole picture. Gone were the pledges to spur the economy into economic overdrive. (In the first quarter after the tax cuts passed, GDP growth was estimated at 2.2 percent, lower than the third quarter of 2016.) Instead, Trump became all about the jobs numbers, all the time.
There was a moment that epitomized that switch. In March 2017, then-press secretary Sean Spicer was asked whether the newly released jobs numbers were still “phony” in the eyes of the president.
“They may have been phony in the past,” Spicer said, quoting Trump, “but it’s very real now.”
He and the reporters in the room laughed.
In January, Trump was interviewed by his old friend Piers Morgan on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
“Black unemployment — the best record in history, the history of our country,” Trump boasted to Morgan. “African American unemployment, best. Hispanic unemployment, best in the history of the country. All of the things that I said on the campaign trail coming true, so I’m very happy about it.”
On the campaign trail, Trump used to insist that black unemployment among young people was nearly 58 percent, a deeply misleading statistic clearly designed to imply a problem for rhetorical purposes. That’s what he said on the campaign trail, and, happily, it didn’t come true.
Nor did his predictions about GDP growth, but he also didn’t mention that to Morgan.