Trump's economic illiteracy isn't getting any better

Image: Trump holds a healthcare meeting with Senate Republicans at the White House in Washington
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a lunch meeting with Senate Republicans to discuss healthcare at the White House in Washington, U.S., July 19, 2017...

It's tempting to do a detailed fact-check of Donald Trump's speech in Phoenix last night, but the very idea is exhausting. The president's lies were so frequent, and so brazen, that it would be easier to do a fact-check in reverse and highlight the claims he made that were true.

It'd be a short list.

But there was one line that jumped out at me because it dovetails with a rhetorical line I've been keeping an eye on in recent months. Trump was eager to argue that he's produced amazing economic gains -- the president touted the million-job figure again, though I don't think he appreciates why that tally is so underwhelming -- which led him to this gem:

"[E]conomic growth has surged to 2.6 percent. Remember, everybody said, 'You won't bring it up to 1 percent. You won't bring it up to 1.2 percent.'"

Everybody didn't say that. In fact, literally no one said that because this rhetoric doesn't make any sense. The president seemed lost trying to talk about this a month ago, and his economic illiteracy doesn't seem to be getting any better.

I'm trying to think of a way to explain this in a way Trump wouldn't find confusing. The strength of the economy is generally measured by GDP, or gross domestic product. Four times a year, we get a quarterly GDP report, showing the strength of the economy from the previous three months. (That report is revised twice more after an initial release, but let's keep things simple.) Eventually, we get a GDP report for the entire calendar year.

Trump's correct that the most recent quarterly report -- reflecting the economy in April, May, and June -- showed growth of 2.6%, which reflects a relatively healthy economy. But the president is under the impression that 2.6% growth is somehow an extraordinary accomplishment -- he recently called it an "unbelievable number" -- which isn't even close to being true.

In the Obama era, for example, once the Recovery Act helped end the Great Recession, quarterly GDP reports varied quite a bit: we saw four quarters in which growth was 4% or higher; we saw two quarters in which growth slipped into the negative; and a whole lot of quarters in between. Over the course of seven years (2010 to 2016), growth was pretty steady -- there wasn't an economic boom, which would be unrealistic after the severity of a global meltdown, but the economy was consistently healthy, with some great quarters and a few not-so-great quarters.

So far this year, we've seen more of the same. The first quarter was discouraging at 1.2% growth, but the second quarter was better at 2.6% growth.

Trump is under the impression that he defied insurmountable odds, sticking it to prognosticators who told him "You won't bring it up to 1 percent. You won't bring it up to 1.2 percent." But no one, anywhere, made such predictions. The quarterly GDP reports we've seen so far in 2017 are not only in line with everyone's expectations, they're also consistent with all of the quarterly GDP reports from the last several years. For example, as recently as last fall, which really isn't that long ago, we saw 2.8% growth.

Barack Obama did not respond to these figures by running around the country, pretending the figure was some kind of economic miracle.

All of which leads to a straightforward dynamic: (1) maybe no one in the White House has explained GDP reports to our first amateur president; (2) maybe Trump's aides have explained it, but he didn't understand the lessons; or (3) perhaps White House staffers did explain it, Trump understood the lessons just fine, and the president is working from the assumption that the public is easily fooled.