The central question going into Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention was how he’d spin his disastrous record — which now includes more than 200,000 Americans dead of coronavirus, and an unemployment rate above 10 percent. And Trump quickly made his strategy clear: Take credit for something he didn’t do, and dodge blame for something he did do.
Let’s start with what he didn’t do. The convention was suffused with nostalgia for the economy of six months ago. “Before the China Virus came in,” Trump said wistfully, we “produced the best unemployment numbers for African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Asian-Americans ever recorded.” And he’s right, in a way. Unemployment was low. Wages were rising. GDP was growing. The stock market was shattering records.
But that wasn’t a boom Trump created. It was a boom Trump inherited, and one that slowed and then collapsed on his watch.
During the first three years of the Trump administration, the economy added slightly fewer jobs per month than during the last three years of the Obama administration — 182,000 jobs a month vs. 224,000 jobs a month. The first three years of the Trump economy look like the last three years of the Obama economy, albeit with somewhat less job growth.
If Trump’s economic policy was so masterful, why is it impossible to pinpoint his takeover on a simple chart of job growth? You can see the economy turn around under Obama. You can’t see job growth accelerate under Trump — because it didn’t. To the extent presidents deserve credit for economic trends, Trump is taking credit for someone else’s work.
Of course, a quick look at that chart does show a radical break with the economic trend under Trump — but it’s over the last year, and it’s much for the worse. So far, in 2020, the economy has lost, on average, 1,774,000 jobs each month. Which brings us to the blame Trump wants to dodge.
Coronavirus, not a new Trump policy, obliterated the economy. But presidencies are defined by how they respond to the crises that happen on their watch. The Obama administration had to pull the country out of the Great Recession. The Trump administration had to defend America against coronavirus. It failed, and horribly so.
Trump worked gamely Thursday night to defend his record here, through a mixture of blame-shifting (“our nation, and the rest of the world, has been hit with a once-in-a-century pandemic that China allowed to spread around the globe”) and misdirection (“The United States has among the lowest case fatality rates of any major country in the world”). But the truth here is undeniable. Under Trump, America has let coronavirus rage across the population in a way peer developed nations haven’t. We have far more cases per capita:
And we have far more deaths per capita:
In this context, to argue that America is leading the world because of a lower case fatality rate is perverse. Case fatality rate measures the proportion of total, confirmed cases that end in death. That rate might reflect care, or it might reflect that we’ve let the virus rage across the population unimpeded, leading to more healthy people getting sick, or it might reflect differences in testing or data. If we’d kept case counts as low as peer nations had, comparing CFRs might be useful. But we didn’t. On the measures we care about most — case counts and deaths — America is doing worse than any other rich nation (save maybe Spain).
It is not Trump’s fault that the coronavirus reached our shores. It is Trump’s fault that we’ve responded so fecklessly. There is no reason that, say Germany, should’ve been so much more capable in its response. The difference was political leadership — a difference that was viscerally, visually on display during Trump’s speech, which packed 1,500 people onto the white House lawn, with barely a face mask in sight.
The grim truth is that, even today, we still don’t have a plan to control the coronavirus, save to hope for a vaccine. Vice President Mike Pence admitted as much on Wednesday. “Last week, Joe Biden said ‘no miracle is coming,’ What Joe doesn’t seem to understand is that America is a nation of miracles and we’re on track to have the world’s first safe, effective coronavirus vaccine by the end of this year.” So that’s the plan, then. A miracle. And how many Americans will die between now and then? How many will die if we don’t have an effective vaccine, produced and delivered at scale, by the end of the year?
So this, then, is the core of Trump’s reelection message. You should give him credit for the economic recovery he inherited from Obama. And you should blame someone else for the disastrous response to the coronavirus. Inspiring stuff.
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