On economic policy, Trump still struggles with the basics

Trump argued that the pre-virus economy was the greatest in the history of the world and that the deficit was shrinking before this year. That's gibberish.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump arrives to speak about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, on April 27, 2020.Alex Brandon / AP

There's been plenty of reporting of late that the White House wants to shift the national conversation away from the pandemic and toward economic policy, which is an odd goal. For one thing, given the scope of the coronavirus crisis, and its effects on Americans' everyday lives, it's a poor time to attempt a rhetorical pivot. For another, the two crises are intertwined: the economy has fallen off a cliff because of the pandemic.

But complicating matters is the fact that Donald Trump knows very little about economic policy. Take these comments from yesterday's press briefing, for example.

"Look, I built -- they were just telling me inside, and it's fact -- I built the greatest economy -- with the help of 325 million people, I built the greatest economy in the history of the world."

I don't know who "they" are. I'm also not altogether sure how the president defines "fact." But the idea that the pre-pandemic U.S. economy was "the greatest in the history of the world" is bonkers.

For example, if we compare American job growth from the first three years of Trump's presidency, and compare it to job growth from the last years of Barack Obama's presidency, we see that job growth slowed considerably after the Republican took office.

Similarly, while GDP growth was steady before the coronavirus crisis, growth rates fell far short of what Trump promised to create before his election, and the rates failed to reach the kind of GDP growth we saw in Obama's second term.

Or put another way, Trump didn't build the greatest economy in the United States this decade, much less the greatest economy the world has ever seen.

At the same briefing, the president added, "If you look prior to this virus, the deficit was coming way down under my administration because I put massive tariffs on China. We took in tens of billions of dollars. Gave some of it to the farmers who were unfairly targeted by China. Nobody has ever done that before. We never took in 10 cents from China."

This is gibberish. The deficit wasn't shrinking before the virus; it was growing quickly. What's more, the deficit was unaffected by Chinese tariffs; China didn't pay us tens of billions of dollars; and U.S. farmers didn't receive any money by way of China.

I don't really expect Trump to be a wonk, knowing obscure and intricate details about economic policy, but the president appears lost about basic economic details many Americans would know just by reading an occasional newspaper.

Is it any wonder that when it comes to negotiating economic rescue packages, Trump -- despite all of his boasts about being a world-class dealmakers -- doesn't play a direct role in the talks?