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On the economy, Obama owns Trump

Being intellectually honest in fairness to Donald Trump seems like unilateral disarmament. Let him try it for a while. But don’t hold your breath.

Former President Barack Obama
Former President Barack Obama addressing a town hall of young leaders from across Europe at an Obama Foundation event in Berlin, Germany, in April.
REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Under which president did the stock market rise more during the first 27 months of his presidency? Donald J. Trump or Barack H. Obama? Under which did the unemployment rate decline more? How about GDP growth per president?

If it wasn’t for obnoxious braggadocio of the current incumbent — his incessant pitiful compulsion to exaggerate his own accomplishments and disparage those of all others (but most especially those of his immediate predecessor) — I would say the idea that economic indices reflect the wisdom and skill of the incumbent president is dumb. But if those are measures the self-glorifying Trump wants to use, let’s go there and review some actual, you know, facts.

On January 20, 2017, the day Trump took office, the Dow Jones industrial average was at 19,827. It’s had a good run during his first two plus years, and it closed Friday at 25,942. That’s an impressive gain of 30.8 percent, but let’s not be stingy. Let’s call it 31 percent. (Note: as of publication of this story Monday morning, the Dow was down more than 600 points, or 2.4 percent.)

Some find Trump’s policies despicable, racist, even (or perhaps especially) planet-threatening. But some argue that the good economy during Trump’s first two-plus years is a powerful offset against those factors. The movement of the Dow is not the best measure of economic performance, nor certainly of the overall cost/benefit analysis of his presidency. GDP growth would be better and, in terms of impact on ordinary Americans, unemployment would be better. And those have done well under Trump, too. But the Dow is very specific and often celebrated by Trump praisers.

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But here’s the thing. During the same period of Barack Obama’s first term, from Inauguration Day 2009, until the close on May 12, 2011, the closest equivalent date during his presidency, the Dow rose from 8,280 to 12,696, a growth of 65 percent.

The stock market is not the best measure of economic performance, of course, and I’m not going to go through all the economic measures. And it would be hard to statistically measure the staggering (but non-monetary) decline in U.S. leadership in the world under Trump. How would one quantify the impact of the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement to combat global warming? Or from the U.S.-brokered deal to head off an Iranian nuclear weapon, which has now caused Iran to announce it will no longer abide by some of the terms of the deal, which makes Mideast war and even life-on-Earth-ending nuclear war a bit more likely?

Those things can’t be measured statistically. Maybe they’ll make America great again, although I have my doubts.

But back to things that can be measured. As statistics go, a rising stock market primarily benefits a relatively small, wealthy investor class (although certainly some benefits trickle down to the economy in general). So let’s do another one more that more directly affects average Americans, especially those who really need to work for a living, namely the unemployment rate.

The administration, among others, has spent recent days celebrating the decline of the unemployment to 3.6 percent, its lowest level since 1969. Congratulations to all those who wanted work and found it thanks to the drop in that rate, and one-hand-clapping to Donald Trump who, of course, claims this as a great personal accomplishment, which further demonstrates his success especially compared to his despised predecessor.

Given all that, let’s take a look at comparison unemployment data across the Obama and Trump years in this chart, which assigns an overall unemployment rate to each calendar year. Obama inherited a plummeting economy and the worst recession in decades from his predecessor, George W. Bush.

In 2009, the first year of Obama’s presidency, unemployment hit 9.9 percent, its highest level since the Great Depression. But starting in 2010, the unemployment rate fell for eight straight years, namely the eight years when the economy was essentially under Obama policy. By 2016, Obama’s last year in office, unemployment measured 4.7 percent (down from 9.9 percent.) In 2017, the first year of Trump’s term (but before many of his policies were implemented) it fell to 4.1 percent.

In 2018, with the Trump tax cuts and other magical elements of Trumpism on the books, it fell again to 3.9 percent. So, depending on how you count those swing years, unemployment fell by a 5.8 percentage points under Obama policy over eight years and 0.2 percentage points under Trump’s policies through the end of 2018.

Just a quick look at GDP growth, for which I’ll rely on this table from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, and this graph from Statista. Between 2009 and 2017, the eight years during which Obama’s policies should be blamed or credited, GDP per capita went up every year, with a total gain of $5,903. I would call that decent, maybe not great. Solid, steady but not astonishing growth of a little above or a little below two percent year with a best year of 2.9 percent in 2015 and an average of about 2.5 percent a year. (It’s “real” GDP so inflation is taken out.)

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For 2018, the first full year under Trump’s policies, Statista says GDP per capita grew 2.9 percent, equal to Obama’s best year, 2015. Although it’s a per capita number, it says nothing about the distribution of the gains, and one has one’s suspicions on that score. But, for today, we’ll leave it at this: The first year under Trump showed good overall growth. (If you look at the whole Statista table, you’ll see that the golden age of recent GDP growth was under Bill Clinton.)

Among the various aspects of Trump’s moral midgetry is intellectual dishonesty. Also immodesty. But intellectual dishonesty is a quality I particularly disdain. Sure, make your argument, but don’t deny the contrary evidence. To me, that borders on lying.

For example, I would acknowledge that Obama inherited an economy and a stock market and a labor market that had crashed under his predecessor, while Trump inherited one that had thrived under his predecessor, the much-belittled-by-Trump Obama.  

That might undermine the power of Obama absolutely besting, crushing, owning Trump as measured by two out of three important benchmark economic numbers during Obama’s presidency compared to Trump’s presidency so far.

I’ll consider the offsetting factor above if and when Trump acknowledges that he inherited a nation that was thriving, at relative peace (and the leader of several of the world’s most admirable and necessary multilateral agreements), and not one that was a hell-scape of carnage, dysfunction incompetence and decline he portrayed during his campaign and inaugural address.

But being intellectually honest in fairness to Donald Trump seems like unilateral disarmament. Let him try it for a while, then we’ll see. But don’t hold your breath.