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As the unemployment rate dips below 4%, the GOP changes its tune

When the unemployment rate fell below 4% under Trump, Republicans said it was evidence of success. So why is the GOP saying the opposite now?

While job growth in December fell short of expectations, it's tough to deny the fact that 2021 was an impressive year for the job market in the United States. As we discussed on Friday, the economy generated 6.4 million jobs in 2021, nearly matching the combined total of Donald Trump's first three years in the White House.

What's more, when President Joe Biden was inaugurated, the U.S. unemployment rate was 6.4 percent. A year later, it's 3.9 percent. When was the last time the jobless rate fell this fast in one year? Never. In our recorded history, it's simply never happened.

In the interest of fairness, it's worth emphasizing that plenty of observers have argued that the 2021 data should be taken with a grain of salt, and it's a reasonable point. Yes, the recovery numbers are impressive, but the context matters: Millions left the workforce in 2020, and then returned as the economy bounced back. Last year looks amazing in part due to unusual historical circumstances. It's not as if anyone should expect to see 6 million jobs created every year indefinitely.

That said, the White House and its allies have similarly argued that while improvements were inevitable in 2021, Democrats deserve credit for adding fuel to the economic fire. That's also a fair point: The Congressional Budget Office estimated in early 2021 that the U.S. jobless rate wouldn't drop below 4 percent until late 2026. Thanks to the ambitious American Rescue Plan, which literally zero Republicans voted for, Democrats were able to deliver these improvements several years ahead of schedule. Their election-year boasts are rooted in statistical facts.

But as it turns out, there's a curious message lurking behind Door #3. While some observers debate just how much credit Democrats deserve for the great news, Republicans have a different pitch: Let's all pretend the great news doesn't exist. Here, for example, was the Republican National Committee's message on Friday:

"This is the worst jobs report of Joe Biden's presidency.... Biden's policies failed and he doesn't care."

I'd understand if the RNC tried to make the case that Democrats don't deserve all the credit for the country's economic successes, but this is just bizarre. Biden's economic agenda passed; job growth soared; the unemployment rate fell; and even the stock market reached new heights. Sure, there are caveats — inflation, for example, is a burden on many Americans — but for those rooting for the economic recovery, there's plenty to cheer.

The RNC sees this as "failure."

In case this isn't obvious, an unemployment rate below 4 percent is not at all common. In January 1970, for example, the rate was 3.9 percent. In the three decades that followed — literally every month of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s — how many times did the unemployment rate fall below 4 percent? Zero. It wasn't until the final year of Bill Clinton's presidency that it finally dropped to 3.8 percent.

The rate remained above 4 percent again for nearly two decades, until it fell below the threshold again in 2018 — at which point Republicans acted as if Donald Trump was a miracle worker.

A Democratic source on Friday sent me a list of statements from GOP officials three years ago, celebrating when the unemployment rate fell below 4 percent, and it wasn't a short list. Republican leaders from the House and Senate, as well as an army of rank-and-file members, all pointed to a 3.9 percent jobless rate as proof an economic success story.

Taking their new standard seriously is impossible.