It’s an opening for political attacks that Republicans themselves once engineered — slamming President Barack Obama in 2010 for what they viewed as prematurely promising a “recovery summer” ahead of an election season dominated by a wave of tea party protests. Expectations from Obama and former vice president Joe Biden for a wave of new jobs — partly powered by stimulus-driven infrastructure and construction projects — never fully materialized, leading to blistering attacks from GOP candidates about the still-high jobless rate. In the 2010 mid-terms that fall, Democrats lost control of the House — an outcome that crippled the Obama agenda.
Trump could fall into the same trap if the economic gains he promised on Friday fail to keep delivering throughout the summer, or if coronavirus infection rates flare up again and cripple huge swaths of the economy ahead of the election. Biden, Trump’s presumptive Democratic opponent, slammed the president on Friday for his remarks, saying he still didn’t get it or have enough empathy for the tens of millions of unemployed Americans.
“Honorable people can debate whether the Obama administration did or didn’t lean slightly too positive on the recovery in 2010 when we were a year past recession,” said Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council under both Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and who worked closely with Biden in the Obama administration. “I don’t see, on the other hand, how anyone with any judgment or empathy could debate whether it was wise to do an end-zone dance and talk ‘rocket ships’ while tens of millions of people are still suffering from lost jobs, opportunities, income and health care on your watch and unemployment is still the highest since before World War II. There is just no comparison.”
The latest jobs report showed the economy had only recouped 2.5 million of the 22 million jobs lost in the prior two months. And the jobless rates for some groups — such as black and Asian workers — rose slightly.
Speaking in the White House Rose Garden, an ebullient Trump heralded the latest jobs gains and predicted a “spectacular” September with a good July and August on the economic front. His allies and advisers have hoped to get such a tailwind into the fall since they view an improving economy as one of his best cases for reelection — a far better message than his handling of the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 100,000 American lives.
In freewheeling remarks that also touched on the coronavirus and relations with China, Trump used the occasion to take digs at Democrats, saying the only thing that could stop the recovery now was “left-wing bad policy” such as raising taxes or the Green New Deal.
“It was a classic Trump stream of consciousness, almost like a rally,” one senior Republican Senate aide said about the performance. “It’s good he is touting these numbers, but I also think we need to not proclaim ‘Mission Accomplished.’ There is still a virus and still ridiculously high unemployment. I would urge caution to the White House.”
Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement that the “great American comeback is underway after the economy was artificially interrupted by the global pandemic. Doomsday economists had predicted a loss of 8.5 million jobs in May, but the economy roared back and added 2.5 million jobs instead, thanks to President Trump’s leadership and the solid foundation his policies have laid.” The campaign launched a new wave of “great American comeback” ads, reframing a message he used in better times before the recession.
Democrats were far more pessimistic. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer blasted Trump and said the “13% unemployment is not ‘joyous’ or ‘stupendous.’“
“Considering that this was a return of a small percentage of the jobs that were lost only due to Trump’s inexplicably slow and weak response to the COVID crisis, he should be far more measured,” Sperling added. “Trump surely knows he is on track to be the first president since Herbert Hoover to lose net jobs during their presidency and he may just be overcompensating.“
After the job numbers, Republicans‘ attention now will turn toward the debate over additional stimulus measures. Trump has advocated for suspending the payroll tax temporarily, lowering some taxes and giving relief to hard-hit industries like restaurants. But Republicans on the Hill have been cool to the idea of the payroll tax holiday and on Friday downplayed the need for another sweeping spending bill.
Some conservatives, such as informal Trump economic adviser Stephen Moore, argue the improving employment picture negates the need for another massive government spending package — though Moore continues to advocate for a suspension of the payroll tax cut. That would help employers bring down costs and encourage Americans to return to their jobs, he said.
Other conservative economists and Democrats say a 13.3 percent unemployment rate signals the need for far more government help — particularly because some of the recent gains are due to the government’s Paycheck Protection Program and other federal support.
“My concern is that the rapid pace of progress will discourage Congress from giving support to the economy and workers and families and small businesses,” said Strain, the AEI economist. “The economy in December 2020 will be poorer than the economy in December 2019. We will have recession levels of unemployment. The idea that we can say, ‘OK, well, the unemployment rate is 13 percent. We’ve done all we can do,’ flies in the face of the basic facts of the situation.”