The headline number in the March jobs report, released Friday by the Labor Department, doesn’t look great: The economy added just 98,000 jobs last month, far below expectations, and the January and February jobs number were revised downwards by 38,000.
Democrats seized the chance to attack Donald Trump, who promised to be the “greatest jobs president that God ever created.” “March’s jobs report should serve as a stern warning to President Trump: tweeting is not a strategy to create jobs for hard-working American families,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called the report “disappointing” and a spokesperson for the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund said it was “not good” for Trump.
But how bad was it, really? If you dig deeper into the report, it doesn’t look nearly so bad. In fact, it starts looking pretty good. The unemployment rate declined to 4.5 percent—and for a good reason, as more people joined the labor force. Annual wage growth was 2.7 percent, not a great figure but above inflation; the labor force participation rate held steady at 63 percent, a hidden positive trend for a number that should be falling as baby boomers retire. Dig even deeper and there is more good news: A broader measure of unemployment—the U-6 rate—declined substantially, from 9.2 to 8.9 percent, reaching its lowest level since December, 2007. And the unemployment rate for people who haven’t graduated from high school fell from 7.9 to 6.8 percent.
It’s always easy to over-read one report; month-to–month changes in the economy can be more distracting than enlightening, and in this case the survey was conducted during the week in March when snowstorms hit the Northeast, artificially lowering the jobs number. The truth is the economy hasn’t changed that much over the past month, six months or even year. It continues to add jobs, wages are slowly increasing and people continue to join the labor force. The longer that continues, the better.
Not too long ago, Democrats understood that. Consider the jobs report last August: It showed that the economy added 151,000 jobs (later revised to 153,000), also below expectations, and the unemployment rate held steady at 4.9 percent. Wages rose 2.4 percent over the previous year and the labor force participation was unchanged at 62.8 percent. It was a status quo report, confirming that the economy continued to slowly improve, not unlike the March report.
However, the Democratic response was much more positive. “August’s jobs report shows our economy moving forward, but more can and must be done,” Pelosi said. House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said, “Today’s jobs report for August shows an American economy continuing to grow after recovering from the worst recession any of us can remember.” An economist at the Center for American Progress noted that the reported marked 71 consecutive months of job growth.
It’s not hard to decipher what changed in the seven intervening months: Barack Obama left the White House, and Donald Trump entered it.
Of course, Democrats are not the only ones to have flip-flopped on the state of the economy. After the release of the February jobs report, which showed strong job growth, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked whether Trump still disbelieved federal job statistics, as he repeatedly said as a candidate during the presidential election. “I talked to the president prior to this,” Spicer answered with a laugh, “and he said to quote him very clearly: ‘They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.’"
In one sense, though, the Democratic reversal is more surprising. For all intents and purposes, this is still Obama’s economy—at least, as much as it ever was, since presidents have a limited impact on the economy. It would have been particularly hard for Trump to have any serious impact on the economy by March: The stock market may have risen on the hopes of tax reform and infrastructure spending, but neither policy has passed Congress, and it’s not clear how they will. His travel ban is tied up in the court and he has signed few pieces of substantive legislation. Even government agencies aren’t doing that much, still awaiting nominations for hundreds of political appointees. The laws Obama signed and regulations he issued are largely still in place, already ingrained in the broader economy.
Democrats may want to use a weak topline jobs number to score political points against Trump. But Obama’s economic legacy didn’t end on January 20, 2017—just ask Bill Clinton, who exited office with a booming economy only to see his legacy tarnished years later when the financial crisis struck, seen by many as partially the result of his 90s-era financial deregulation finally hitting home.