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On economy, Trump picks a fight with Obama he cannot win

Trump needs people to believe he's singlehandedly responsible for creating an economic nirvana unlike any ever witnessed by humans, but reality is stubborn
Image: US President Barack Obama welcomes President-elect Donald Trump
US President Barack Obama (R) and President-elect Donald Trump (L) meet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 10 November 2016. President-elect Donald Trump and future First Lady Melania Trump are meeting with President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House and are expected to discuss efforts toward a smooth transition of power.MICHAEL REYNOLDS / EPA

Yesterday morning, Barack Obama published a tweet marking an important anniversary. Alongside an image of a bill bearing his signature, the former president wrote, "Eleven years ago today, near the bottom of the worst recession in generations, I signed the Recovery Act, paving the way for more than a decade of economic growth and the longest streak of job creation in American history."

The Democrat's message had the benefit of being true. Roughly a month into his presidency, with the economy falling off a cliff and the nation hemorrhaging jobs, Obama signed into law an economic stimulus package, which Republicans said would never work. Almost immediately, the employment landscape improved; the Great Recession gave way to a recovery; and the economy hasn't stopped growing or adding jobs since.

That's not opinion or spin; it's just what happened.

Obama's successor, however, still desperate for credit for a recovery he did not create, was unimpressed with the tweet. Last night, Donald Trump published one of his own.

"Did you hear the latest con job? President Obama is now trying to take credit for the Economic Boom taking place under the Trump Administration. He had the WEAKEST recovery since the Great Depression, despite Zero Fed Rate [and] MASSIVE quantitative easing. NOW, best jobs numbers ever."

I can appreciate why Trump is sensitive about this. He's based his entire presidency -- and re-election campaign -- on the idea that he's singlehandedly responsible for creating an economic nirvana unlike any ever witnessed by humans. If Americans knew the truth, the Republican's political standing would be even worse than it is now, which leads to ridiculous tweets like these featuring demonstrably false claims.

Reality, however, is stubborn. When it comes to economic growth, for example, there has been no "boom" under Trump. In fact, American GDP growth has fallen short, both of growth rates from Obama's second term and of growth rates Trump promised to create before taking office.

The same is true of job numbers. While the current president claimed yesterday that we're seeing the best job numbers "ever," the truth is fewer jobs were created during Trump's first three years than during Obama's last three years. What's more, no individual year from Trump's tenure has shown job growth that matches the best years from Obama's second term. There's also the inconvenient fact that in 2019, U.S. job growth slipped to an eight-year low.

Again, that's not opinion or spin; it's just what happened.

The Washington Post published an interesting analysis in the fall taking a broader view of the Trump-vs-Obama debate.

There’s no telling Trump that the economy is anything but sensational under his stewardship, of course, and there’s no telling him that it’s doing well for any reason other than his stewardship. Generally speaking, the economy is doing well, though there are ongoing concerns that the economic boom is slowing. But given Trump’s habit of comparing his performance to history, we thought it was worth comparing economic metrics under Trump to the second term of the last guy to hold Trump’s job: Barack Obama.

I have a hunch the White House didn't care for the results of the report. Comparing the economy under Obama and Trump at the same points in their presidencies, the Post found that the economy grew faster under Obama, hiring grew faster under Obama, the S&P 500 grew faster under Obama, the unemployment rate shrunk faster under Obama, and the national debt grew slower under Obama.

The analysis concluded, “[I]f we are linking economic numbers to presidential performance, Trump’s insistence that his abilities are unparalleled are rendered somewhat suspect in that he ranks second out of the last two presidents on a lot of these indicators.”

As we discussed at the time, it’s worth emphasizing that it’d be wrong to suggest the economy is bad under Trump. It’s not, at least not yet. But the more the Republican tries to convince people that he’s responsible for the greatest economic boom since the dawn of humanity, the more relevant it becomes that he hasn’t yet matched Obama’s record of success.