Opinion | Trump’s economy was not as good as you remember

“Three more years! Three more years!”

That’s what Donald Trump’s supporters should be chanting, given how long they seem to believe he was in office. After all, when describing the great economy and other idyllic metrics of the Trump administration, they conveniently lop off his fourth, and final, year, when everything crashed — and when he made that crash worse.

In recent weeks, allies of the former president have puffed up his record and diminished his successor’s. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) declared that Joe Biden’s presidency represents “the end of the American dream,” whereas under the “Trump economy we had American jobs going to American workers. Under the Biden economy we’ve got American workers getting fired and replaced with foreign labor.” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) claimed that Black and Hispanic Americans were “better off under Trump,” since he presided over “the lowest unemployment rates for all racial demographics.”

The American public writ large also harbors nostalgia for the Trump years, based on polling on memories of the economy under Trump versus that under Biden.

There are a couple of problems with these characterizations.

First, some of the superlatives used about Trump’s first three years are not quite accurate. For example, Black and Hispanic unemployment were undoubtedly low during the pre-covid Trump years (as Scott recalls), but since Biden took office, these groups’ unemployment rates have either matched the Trump-era numbers or even bested them.

For example, Black unemployment fell beneath 5 percent for the first time in history this last April.

As for the job market overall: There are 6 million more jobs today than in December 2019. And while lots of older native-born Americans have retired — I emphasize retired, not fired, contra Vance’s claims — the number of prime-working-age native-born Americans who have jobs is about the same, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Immigrants, for their part, have helped employment grow even faster than expected, rather than displacing Americans’ jobs.

The second and larger problem is that however good conditions looked at the close of 2019, they were then followed by the disaster that was 2020.

Trump surrogates, and often Trump himself, sometimes ask Americans if they’re better off than they were four years ago. For most people, the answer should be yes — if you count correctly. “Four years ago” situates us in the first year of the pandemic.

In early 2020, many Americans were stuck at home, futilely Lysol-ing their groceries and searching for toilet paper. Unemployment hit its highest level since the Great Depression. Worse, thousands were dying every day.

Trump squandered the first few precious months of the pandemic. He downplayed covid’s spread (“It’s going to disappear”) and overstated the government’s capacity to respond to the crisis. His supposed “expert” advisers enabled him, including by providing pseudoscience to prop up his predictions. Meanwhile, Trump mused about treating covid with bleach injections, UV-rays and other unproven and dangerous therapies. Some of his followers adopted his advice, at great harm to themselves (and others).

Trump bungled the crisis in other ways. He openly spoke about withholding financial and public-health assistance from blue-state governors who insufficiently groveled before him. He tried to interfere with the workings of the Federal Reserve, just as it was swooping in to prevent a financial crisis.

Critically, he also dismantled much of the legal immigration system. He did so through outright immigration bans; through travel restrictions that made it harder for foreign-born nurses and other health professionals to get here, just when they were needed most; and, most enduringly, through policies that required immigrants and immigration agencies to cut through nearly impenetrable red tape. This led to major backlogs in the processing of work permits and other necessary documents, which contributed to labor shortages and ultimately inflation when the economy later reopened. Such consequences, of course, were blamed on Biden.

Yet it was Biden’s reversal of many of those Trump-era immigration policies that more recently helped lead to gangbusters job growth and cooling inflation.

The one unequivocally good thing the Trump administration did during the pandemic was expedite vaccine development through Operation Warp Speed. Since then, as his followers have disavowed covid immunizations, Trump has joined the broader anti-vax movement while measles cases rise. That bodes ill for what might happen should we suffer another national crisis, public health related or otherwise, if Trump were elected to another term.

Was the coronavirus pandemic itself Trump’s fault? Obviously not. Any president can get hit with a bad shock. The true test of leadership, however, is how one handles that shock. It’s telling that neither this former president nor his followers wish to dwell on the results.

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