May 2016 was the single worst month for the U.S. job market since the economic recovery began in 2010. The good news, though we didn’t know it at the time, was that May 2016 was something of a fluke: the economy bounced immediately, creating 282,000 jobs in June 2016 and 336,000 in July 2016 – the best back-to-back totals since 2012.
But when the initial tally was released, in the midst of a competitive presidential campaign, it became immediate fodder for Barack Obama’s critics. A Republican candidate by the name of Donald Trump wrote on Twitter, “A massive blow to Obama’s message – only 38,000 new jobs for month in just issued jobs report. That’s REALLY bad!”
Larry Kudlow, years before he began serving as director of the National Economic Council in Trump’s White House, wrote a piece for National Review at the time, arguing that the weak monthly job totals in May 2016 suggested “a business recession looms.” Kudlow acknowledged in his piece, “A lot of investors and economists are making the case that this was a weird, one-off, statistical glitch, and that stronger employment is on the way.” He made the case that those investors and economists may very well be wrong – because “trouble” was on the way.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know Trump and Kudlow were wrong. The one-time hiccup wasn’t a precursor to a recession; the job market immediately improved; and the unemployment rate continued to fall.
Nearly three years later, however, Trump, Kudlow, and their team have been forced to confront a similarly disappointing jobs report: as we learned on Friday, the official tally for jobs created in February 2019 was just 20,000. Asked about the employment report on Fox News yesterday, Kudlow did his best to shrug it off.
“Well, let me say on that number on Friday, the payroll numbers from the establishment survey was only 20,000 – a very fluky number. It has a lot to do with the government shutdown and the timing of jobs.”
Oh. So when the economy creates 38,000 jobs in a month under Obama, it’s evidence of a looming recession, but when the economy creates 20,000 jobs in a month under Trump, it’s “fluky”?
As for the president who argued that 38,000 new jobs is a “REALLY bad” number, Trump turned to a familiar talking point yesterday: “More people are working today in the United States, 158,000,000, than at any time in our Country’s history. That is a Big Deal!”
No, actually, it’s not. As the American population grows, so too does the number of Americans in the workforce. Literally every modern U.S. president could make the exact same boast, just with different numbers. Most other presidents have not, however, tried to turn this into a key talking point, probably because they realized how meaningless the observation was.
I can appreciate why the latest job tallies caused some agita in the White House, and for the country’s sake, we can all hope that the job market bounces back quickly, just as it did three years ago. But at this point, Trump World’s talking points could be better.