The unemployment rate was down last month, and employers added far more jobs than expected, which was good news. Still, despite these minor victories, at 11.1 percent we’re facing an extremely high unemployment rate historically. Since the Great Depression, the two worst unemployment rates we faced prior to coronavirus were the 10.1 percent rate reached in September 1982 and the 10 percent unemployment rate recorded in October 2009.
We are also in a recession. While we won’t know the full extent of the damage for quite some time, U.S. gross domestic product decreased at an annual rate of five percent in the first quarter of this year. Consumer spending remains depressed.
The stock market, which everyone who writes about this stuff is fond of (accurately) reminding us is not the economy, took a steep dive this spring. But segments of it have now recovered to pre-coronavirus levels. Investors who stayed on the ride had the pleasure of tying up their money for half a year just to break even. If you want to take a longer-term approach and look at stock market returns as measured by the Dow Jones Industrial Average at 42 months into their terms, four of the past five presidents outperformed Trump at the equivalent stage (In descending order: Clinton 67 percent, Obama 62.6 percent, Bush I 44.9 percent, Trump 31.3 percent, and Bush II negative 6.9 percent). If you care to look just before coronavirus struck, Trump had overtaken George H.W. Bush in returns at the equivalent stage, but the ranking otherwise stands.
All of this has been while we’re running up a record budget deficit (which was also the case before coronavirus came to the U.S., although the deficit was growing more slowly back then, and there’s a lot of evidence that the national debt is less of a big deal than we’ve been led to believe).
The Trump presidency hasn’t yet been the economic catastrophe that was the tenure of George W. Bush. But Trump wasn’t doing so hot by a lot of economic measures before the COVID-19 pandemic, and now even the economic bright spots from before, like the then-low unemployment rate, have been snuffed out.
Still, his handling of the economy is the one place Trump remains above water with voters. In a recent Pew Research Center survey of registered voters, in a head-to-head matchup between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, voters were overwhelmingly more confident in Joe Biden’s ability to handle a number of pressing issues facing the nation, from handling the public health impact of the coronavirus outbreak to effectively handling race relations. But the one area where Trump outperformed Biden was in voter perception of his ability to handle the economy. Of those surveyed, 48 percent were very or somewhat confident that Joe Biden can “(m)ake good decisions about economic policy,” compared to 51 percent who were very or somewhat confident Trump can do the same. Biden had a double-digit lead in voter confidence that he can better handle the coronavirus outbreak, the thing that is causing the current economic crisis, yet somehow more voters trust Trump with the economy.
Who are the 10 percent or so of voters who apparently simultaneously believe that Biden will be better at handling the coronavirus pandemic, but Trump will be better at handling the economy? A president who is bad at the pandemic is bad at the economy. I suppose you can’t really blame Trump for the coronavirus itself (although even on this point I don’t see why we all have to make excuses for him, every president eventually deals with a national crisis of some kind). But you can blame Trump for his shoddy response to the pandemic, and Trump’s pandemic response has been measurably worse than that of leaders of a number of countries he regularly makes fun of.
Trump was only ever a middling president at managing the good economy he inherited from Obama before coronavirus, and he’s terrible at it now. There are a lot of voters who don’t seem to know this yet though, and a good number of them are not Trump cultists who can never be convinced. Hopefully by November a few more of them see through the ridiculous reality TV façade that is Trump’s supposed economical prowess.
Jonathan Wolf is a litigation associate at a midsize, full-service Minnesota firm. He also teaches as an adjunct writing professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, has written for a wide variety of publications, and makes it both his business and his pleasure to be financially and scientifically literate. Any views he expresses are probably pure gold, but are nonetheless solely his own and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He wouldn’t want to share the credit anyway. He can be reached at [email protected]