There’s no telling Trump that the economy is anything but sensational under his stewardship, of course, and there’s no telling him that it’s doing well for any reason other than his stewardship. Generally speaking, the economy is doing well, though there are ongoing concerns that the economic boom is slowing. But given Trump’s habit of comparing his performance to history, we thought it was worth comparing economic metrics under Trump to the second term of the last guy to hold Trump’s job: Barack Obama.
Take GDP, for example. We generally look at quarter-to-quarter changes in gross domestic product to get a sense for how the economy is progressing. But we can also look at how GDP has shifted since the quarter before each president’s inauguration. When we do that, we see that economic growth under Trump has been about the same as it was to this point in Obama’s second term.
As Trump’s 2012 tweet reminds us, these numbers do get revised over time, so they might change to Trump’s benefit in the future. For now, though, economic growth under Trump looks a lot like it did during Obama’s second term.
At times, Trump will lift up unusual economic factors as indicators of his administration’s success. He loves to talk about how there is a record number of people working, for example, despite that metric reflecting population growth more than actual gains in employment.
Overall employment growth, which helps control for population changes, was stronger in Obama’s second term than during Trump’s. The growth in manufacturing employment has been better under Trump (as he likes to say), but it has been fairly flat for several months now.
Trump also likes to point to the stock markets as examples of how well the economy is doing with him as president. Since he took office, the Dow Jones industrial average is up about 37 percent, better than the growth to the same point in Obama’s second term. But under Obama, the S&P 500 grew faster.
On numerous occasions, Trump has also celebrated the economy hitting historic lows in the unemployment rate. That’s a perfectly fair metric to cite. If we’re comparing how the economy changed under the two presidents, though, we will note that the unemployment rate dropped faster under Obama than under Trump.
There are reasons for this, too. One is that it would have been hard for the unemployment rate to keep dropping as quickly because it is already so low. There’s a natural level of unemployment built into the economy from people changing jobs and so on, so there’s a limit on how far unemployment can fall.
Nonetheless, this Obama-to-Trump comparison is useful for two reasons. The first is that Obama’s second term was the period immediately before Trump’s inauguration, meaning it gives us the best way of gauging how the current economy has changed. The other is that Trump himself regularly derided Obama’s economic numbers (as the tweet above suggests), allowing us a handy report card to apply to Trump himself.
We’d be remiss, then, if we didn’t also look at a key economy-adjacent number that was a repeated point of criticism from Trump: the national debt. Trump mentioned the debt and the deficit scores of times on the campaign trail, at times pledging to rapidly eliminate the government’s ongoing budget shortfalls.
Easier said than done. The national debt has increased much faster under Trump than it had to this point in Obama’s presidency. That’s in part because at this point under Obama, there was an ongoing fight about increasing the debt ceiling, meaning that the debt essentially couldn’t go up. Even before that point, though, Trump was adding to the debt at a slightly faster pace than his predecessor was.
Again, none of this means that the economy isn’t doing well. Instead, it’s a reminder that the strength of the economy to this point in Trump’s term is in part a function of the economy he inherited from Obama. And if we are linking economic numbers to presidential performance, Trump’s insistence that his abilities are unparalleled are rendered somewhat suspect in that he ranks second out of the last two presidents on a lot of these indicators.