For starters, the websites and phone lines for state unemployment offices were overrun, meaning a number of claimants could not get through. Moreover, the majority of states last week had not yet closed down all non-essential businesses. Virginia, for example, did not order such businesses shuttered until this week, as did Maryland and Massachusetts. Texas and Florida, which rank among the states with the highest number of employees, have yet to order statewide bans. As more states close down businesses, the number of unemployed people will soar.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin might therefore come to regret his utterance in an interview with CNBC on Thursday: “To be honest with you, I think these numbers right now aren’t relevant.” He called the spike in unemployment claims “short term,” declaring that “the president is protecting those people.” If months from now, millions of people remain out of work or Republicans balk at extending unemployment insurance, those words will come back to haunt the administration.
President Trump did not help matters. He suggested that the numbers would have been worse without a ban on travel from China, a non sequitur. He insisted, “It’s nobody’s fault, certainly not in this country.” He said, "We got very lucky.” Prepare to see that quote in a whole lot of Democratic ads in the fall.
Trump has refused to level with Americans from the start of the pandemic, and he still seems incapable of facing the magnitude of the problem and the seriousness of the recession we now face. Unsurprisingly, former vice president Joe Biden blasted the White House’s nonchalant attitude. “These numbers reflect overwhelming job losses in service industries like accommodation and food service, which means lower-income workers are already feeling the impact of this crisis in a major way,” Biden said in a written statement. “Secretary Mnuchin may think these numbers ‘are not relevant,’ but for those who were already struggling to make ends meet, this is a very real crisis.”
Biden has not been subtle about his message. “The President is not responsible for the coronavirus, but he bears full responsibility for the slow and uncoordinated response that has exacerbated both the public health and economic impact on our country.” Biden reasons that “at least 3 million people now don’t have jobs because our president didn’t do his job when it mattered,” referencing Trump’s delinquency in confronting the virus with testing and contract-tracing. He concludes that “in the absence of an early, aggressive response to flatten the curve, cities and states have been left with no option other than extreme social distancing measures, causing businesses to close and lay off workers. Now we are facing the economic fallout as well as a worsening public health crisis.”
What ultimately will matter is how many people lose their jobs and for how long. If the recovery is not swift and complete, Trump can protest all he likes, but as a president who has claimed responsibility for every bit of good economic news, he is going to have a hard time deflecting blame for the disaster unfolding on his watch.