Pence picks a misguided fight on jobs he simply cannot win

Not to put too fine a point on this, but as Mike Pence lies about US job numbers, the Republican Hoosier has picked the wrong fight on the wrong issue.
Image: Donald Trump
Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on April 19, 2020.Patrick Semansky / AP file
By Steve Benen

It's no secret that Donald Trump and his allies hoped to emphasize the health of the economy ahead of his re-election bid. The coronavirus pandemic, and the disastrous federal response to the crisis, effectively took this talking point off the table.

But as Election Day draws closer, some on the president's team apparently believe they can salvage some form of the argument.

Jaws collectively dropped on Twitter over Vice President Mike Pence's latest boast about the number of jobs created during Donald Trump's presidency. Pence on Wednesday told Fox News' Sean Hannity that Trump had "seen us through the worst pandemic in 100 years" and "we've already created more jobs in the last three months than Joe Biden and Barack Obama created in their eight years in office."

It's worth emphasizing that people will sometimes say something unscripted during a live television interview that didn't come out quite right -- it's happened to me -- so it seemed possible the vice president would later realize how absurd his rhetoric was last night.

But, no. On Twitter last night, Pence, published a clip from his Fox News interview, added this text: "We've created more jobs in the last 3 months than Joe Biden and Barack Obama created in their 8 years in office."

Not to put too fine a point on this, but the Republican Hoosier has picked the wrong fight on the wrong issue. Let's summarize some basic, demonstrable truths.

First, there's been a sharp increase in the number of jobs in the last few months -- 9.3 million between May and July -- which appears amazing on the surface. But just below the surface, there are the totals from Mach and April to consider: the U.S. economy lost over 22 million jobs in the spring.

In other words, Pence is bragging about the job market trying to slowly crawl back from catastrophic losses, removing relevant context. It's a bit like bragging about new construction jobs in a community after a tornado tore through town: the jobs are nice, but let's not lose sight of what precipitated the boost.

Second, the vice president's math is indefensibly wrong. Across Barack Obama's two terms -- which started with brutal losses from the Great Recession he inherited -- the U.S. economy added over 11 million jobs. I wrote in my book about Republican hostility toward arithmetic, but one need not reference a calculator to know 11 million is more than 9 million.

Third, this whole topic is one that Pence probably ought to avoid. Over the first three years of Trump's presidency, American job growth fell when compared to the three final years of the Obama/Biden era. In fact, in 2019 -- Trump's third year in office -- domestic job growth fell to an eight-year low, which is a nagging detail the White House has never even tried to explain.

For that matter, if the vice president really wants to play this game, we can also go a step further and note that, as things currently stand, the net change in American jobs since Trump took office is a little below -588,000. That's not a typo: add up all the job gains and all the job losses since the president's inauguration, and he's deep in negative territory.

That gives Trump the worst jobs record of any president since before World War II.

Of course, the White House and its allies will argue -- not unreasonably -- that the statistic is misleading because it includes the devastating losses from the COVID-19 crisis. That's true.

But if Pence wants to strip job numbers of their proper context in the hopes of deceiving the public, the vice president may find that the tactic can be used against him, too.