The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Of all the ways to go after Biden, jobs isn’t a great one

A sign in Brockton, Mass., in January. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
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Rep. Lisa C. McClain came to Congress last year. Her background was in business, so she might be forgiven for not being familiar with the intricacies of the political system at first.

It’s a bit harder to be so generous now, 14 months into her tenure as a congresswoman, and even harder when it comes to global events, such as who was president when Osama bin Laden was killed. You are not a member of Congress, but I suspect you recall that the president was Barack Obama and not Donald Trump, despite what McClain (R-Mich.) said in a speech before a Trump rally over the weekend.

While that error was striking, I would like to instead focus on something else McClain said in that speech, something more subtly but not much less egregiously wrong — something that she is by no means alone in saying.

“We went from an economy that was booming to a shambles,” she said. “What we have now is a shambles. It’s a complete mess. Unemployment? Forty-year high.”

Hmm. No.

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This is one of those incorrect statements that’s so incorrect it’s hard to even source. Sometimes, people will take statistics and present them out of context or misinterpret them to make a point. This one, though, is simply wrong.

Since the beginning of 2020 — that is, since immediately before the pandemic disrupted employment — the unemployment rate is up slightly and the number of people working is down slightly. On the job front, things are slightly worse than they were at the best moment for employment in Trump’s term in office — that is, than at the point when McClain would say that the economy “was booming.” And that’s after the huge plunge due to the pandemic. Since Joe Biden took office in January 2021, things have improved fairly consistently.

Is unemployment at a 40-year-high? Not in terms of the number of unemployed people (down since the end of Trump’s term), not in terms of the number of people in the labor force who aren’t working (down since the end of Trump’s term) and not in terms of the number of adults not working (down since the end of Trump’s term). And, of course, not in terms of the unemployment rate, which is near record lows.

That metric, though, is interesting. While changes in the unemployment rate are often subtle, the trend over the past two years has been steady. Yet Republicans generally think the unemployment rate is rising or staying the same, while Democrats generally see it dropping — a partisan reversal from the months before the 2020 election.

Every month (save January 2020), YouGov conducts polling for the Economist in which it asks whether the unemployment rate rose or fell over the prior month. In most months since April 2020, the rate fell, save four. But when Trump was president, Democrats consistently were more likely to say it rose than fell, just as Republicans have said since Biden took office. So while members of both parties have been right about as often as they’ve been wrong (where “right” means that members of the party were more likely to be right about a change than wrong), Democrats were twice as likely to be right since Biden took office, because they’ve been more likely to say that the unemployment rate fell. Democrats were more often wrong when Trump was president. For Republicans, the pattern is reversed.

You can see the shift more clearly when we look at each party’s net view — the percent saying that the unemployment rate rose minus the percent saying it fell. Under Trump, Democrats were more pessimistic and more likely to think the rate rose on net. Since Biden took office, it’s been Republicans who have been more pessimistic.

Or, more accurately, since the November 2020 election that Trump lost.

This aligns with other patterns of economic sentiment. The University of Michigan’s index of consumer sentiment, for example, shows a flip in partisan views that aligns with the post-election period.

One of my favorite examples of the partisan observation effect came in 2018, when Trump was touting a payroll tax cut that would lead to more take-home pay. A few months later, Republicans reported seeing exactly that sort of increase — while Democrats and independents didn’t.

To a large extent, these shifts reflect the extent to which partisanship has soaked into everyday life in America. If you think that Biden or Trump is the worst president ever, as many Americans do, you’ll probably have a more pessimistic assessment of how things are going. What’s more, Americans have spent more than a decade focusing on employment as a measure of economic health; that the economy’s uncertainty is now manifested in inflation requires some rhetorical adjustment.

This appears to be what McClain flubbed. Inflation has recently been at a 40-year-high, not unemployment. But many Republicans would possibly think both are true.

In August, YouGov asked respondents whether employment had increased or decreased over the year prior. The correct answer was increased; 6 million more people were working.

A plurality of Republicans said the figure stayed the same or fell.

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