The economy slowed under Trump; his inept pandemic response ensured its collapse

The economy slowed under Trump; his inept pandemic response ensured its collapse
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In pre-pandemic times, President Trump bet his political fortunes squarely on the economy. But the president’s relentless braggadocio obscured a harsh reality: The economy Trump inherited from Obama slowed significantly over Trump’s first three years in office. Worse, following months of dire warnings, Trump’s failure to prepare the United States for a particularly deadly pandemic ushered in economic catastrophe.

Americans could be forgiven for buying into Trump’s bragging about the economy. After all, he consistently puffed up his chest – one hubristic Tweet at a time – portraying himself as an economic super-messiah. But the facts run counter to the mindless reality TV president’s incessant boasting: By virtually all objective measures, the economy performed worse during Trump’s first three years in office compared to Obama’s last three.

Let’s start with job growth. Before the pandemic decimated tens of millions of American jobs, Trump crowed ceaselessly about monthly job reports. But the numbers did not merit Trump’s flamboyant hullabaloo. Over one million more jobs were created during Obama’s last three years in office than in Trump’s first three. To top it off, job growth in every one of Obama’s last three years beats Trump’s best year by a significant margin. So much for Trump’s ostentatious bragging.


Similarly, a pre-pandemic Trump boasted nonstop about record-low unemployment.

Sorry, Donald. Time for another truth bomb: The unemployment rate declined at a steady clip after 2010, when Obama’s aggressive recovery measures saved the American economy from total collapse. Trump just happened to be the guy in charge when Obama’s decade-long trend reached its nadir. Indeed, a look at the unemployment rate over the last decade shows no notable change in the three years after Trump took office.

Ultimately, Trump had zero claim to the unemployment numbers he took credit for. An orangutan could have been elected in his stead and the unemployment rate would have hit the lows that it did before COVID-19 changed the world.

Let’s now turn briefly to Wall Street. Trump’s endless braggadocio about record market highs ignored some critical context: Stocks rose far higher under Obama and Clinton. More importantly, with the richest 10 percent owning 80 percent of all stock wealth, the markets are a terrible indicator of America’s economic health. Indeed, market gains under Trump had no noticeable impact on 90 percent of the country.

In other words, blue-collar Americans – whose votes propelled Trump to the White House – were locked out of the vast majority of the Wall Street gains that Trump ballyhooed without end.


Empty bluster aside, Trump’s strikingly suspicious silence on economic growth – the single most important measure of the economy – spoke volumes. In peddling his massive, debt-busting tax cut for the ultra-wealthy, Trump promised 6 percent growth. But two years later, the economy was growing at a paltry 2 percent, worse than the post-recession average under Obama.

Indeed, beyond an explosion in inequality and debt ballooning by trillions of dollars, Trump’s enormous tax cut for the super-rich had virtually no effect on the economy. Among Trump’s many failures, this one is truly a whopper.

Then came COVID-19. Nearly 70,000 Americans have lost their lives in the span of weeks. Tens of millions more lost their jobs. Economic growth is set to contract at a rate not seen in a century.

In a feat of astounding political hypocrisy, congressional Republicans raced to spend trillions of dollars to prop up the economy. Unlike our Canadian, British and other first-world allies who are guaranteeing salaries for citizens who lost jobs, Republicans’ virulent ideology elevated ultra-wealthy corporate interests at the expense of everyday, hard-working Americans.

Of course, this all happened after Trump’s massive tax cut for the ultra-wealthy and his disastrous spending policies put America nearly $5 trillion in the hole.

Worst of all, much of the economic carnage that the United States confronts today could have been avoided. The Obama administration literally handed the incoming Trump team the pandemic response playbook and ran a detailed exercise – simulating a viral outbreak nearly identical to COVID-19 – for Trump’s national security team. Trump, naturally, ignored the plans, fired the key participants in the exercise and dismantled a critical White House pandemic response unit.

He then spent six critical weeks ignoring, downplaying and belittling his public health and intelligence experts in a desperate ploy keep the economy going in an election year. Trump’s actions ironically inflicted more long-term economic damage than if he had taken the threat seriously early on.

Instead of claiming that “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear,” or “We have it totally under control,” Trump should have directed a laser-like focus on ramping up nationwide testing and contact tracing capabilities. Had these key elements been in place – as they were in Taiwan and South Korea – coronavirus outbreaks in the United States could have been isolated and stamped out. Tens of thousands of lives would have been saved and lockdowns would have been shorter (or entirely unnecessary), significantly minimizing the economic catastrophe America faces today.

Trump’s staggering ineptitude aside, this pandemic has exposed – in particularly visceral fashion – a far more insidious economic truth: On paper, the economy has looked relatively strong over the last decade. But the stark reality is that four decades of GOP ideology favoring the ultra-wealthy have gutted the American middle class.

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen