Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Trump’s Economy Was Never So Great

Biden needs to counter the president’s positive economic approval ratings with the facts.

By Steven Rattner

Mr. Rattner served as counselor to the Treasury secretary in the Obama administration.

By most measures, President Trump’s poll ratings have long been loitering below the waterline, even more so since the pandemic swept through the United States, killing more than 220,000 and devastating the nation’s economy.

That is, by most measures except one that has regularly been central to past elections: support for his handling of the economy. According to an average of recent polls compiled by Real Clear Politics, 50.5 percent of Americans approve of Mr. Trump’s handling of the economy, compared with 47.5 percent who disapprove.

How can that be, in a nation with an unemployment rate — 7.9 percent — that remains deeply in recessionary territory?

For one thing, before the pandemic arrived, Mr. Trump used his loose relationship to the truth to hammer into accepted dogma the notion that he was responsible for creating “the greatest economy in the history of the world.” The unemployment rate had fallen to a 51-year low, the economy was growing steadily (albeit slowly) and inflation remained subdued.

For another, the recent economic turmoil has had vastly divergent effects on different groups of Americans. Many have not been damaged financially or have even found their economic well-being improved. Think, for example, of those employed in companies with significant online revenues, those who own stocks and those who work in largely unaffected industries like technology.

To be sure, Mr. Trump’s approval ratings on the economy have declined since the pandemic began, although from lofty levels well above those that prevailed during most of his term.

But the reality of Mr. Trump’s economy is far different than his portrayal of it. For the first three years of his presidency, his economy amounted to nothing more than a continuation of the recovery engineered by President Barack Obama.

Job growth, for example, was faster during Mr. Obama’s last three years than during the first three years of Mr. Trump’s.

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