CHICAGO – President Donald Trump has always been a big numbers guy.
He’s proved adept at taking even the grimmest numbers and giving himself a pat on the back or relying on a creative use of data to make himself look good. But his declaration that an unexpected dip in the unemployment rate marked probably “the greatest comeback in American history” was a remarkable level of hyperbole even for him.
“This is a particularly clear example of his lack of cognitive complexity,” said Brian Ott, incoming director of the communication school at Missouri State University and author of “The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage.”
The Labor Department's repor t on Friday that 2.5 million Americans were added to payrolls in May was clearly good news. In advance, economists had been projecting the loss of 8.3 million jobs, continuing the economic bloodletting caused by the coronavirus pandemic that has spurred the highest unemployment levels since the Great Depression.
But economists say the notion that the coronavirus-battered economy is now on a glide path to recovery glosses over some of the hard truths that American workers will face for months, if not years.
Justin Wolfers, a University of Michigan economist, notes that coronavirus pushed the economy into a massive hole and that it remains in a bad place.
“This month’s rise in non-farm payrolls of +2.5 million is (easily!) the largest monthly rise ever recorded,” Wolfers tweeted. “But it’s still only one-eighth of last month’s monstrous decline of -20.7 million. (Also a record.)”
The president’s premature claim to economic victory reflects an artful relationship with numbers that Trump has long displayed.
Trump has repeatedly responded to the still-rising American death toll from the coronavirus — exceeding 109,000 — by saying that if not for his decision to restrict travel from China and Europe and other steps, the U.S. could have lost “maybe even 2.5 million or more lives," as he put it Friday.
”Big move closing it up," Trump offered appreciatively.
Earlier this week, Trump took to Twitter to point to a Washington Post--ABC News poll that showed Trump supporters are more enthusiastic about voting for him than are people likely to vote for likely Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. Left unsaid was that the same poll showed Biden held a 10 percentage point lead among respondents as their choice in November.
Trump's tendency to get creative with numbers started early.
In his 1987 book about his rise in the New York real estate world, “The Art of the Deal,” Trump wrote that a “little hyperbole never hurts.” He framed his bankruptcies as smart legal maneuvers.
“People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. ... It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion,” Trump wrote in his book.
As he toyed with making a White House run in 2011, Trump said his reluctance to run was due in part to having the “No. 1 show on NBC.” That was a stretch: Trump had been the network’s top- rated show the week prior to the interview, but ran third for the network for the entire season.
On his first day in the White House, Trump dispatched his press secretary at the time, Sean Spicer, to inaccurately insist to reporters that Trump had drawn “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.”
The economy is one of Trump's favorite places to spin up a swirl of good numbers attributed to his stewardship.
With 2.5 million workers added to the payroll in May, Trump said, the once-shuttered economy is coming back with “a bang.”
But with the unemployment rate still standing at 13.3% — significantly higher than the low point of the Great Recession of 2008 — the president’s ebullience doesn’t reflect the reality that the climb back will take time and could be bumpy, said Claudia Sahm, director of macroeconomic policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.
“This was a good day for him," said Sahm, who served as a senior economist on the Council of Economic Advisers during the the Obama administration. “But he took what was a good day and made it hyperbolic."
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, warned that Trump's disproportionate exuberance could backfire.
“If the White House takes from this and Congress takes from this that we don't need another round of stimulus, that's going to be a problem," Zandi said. “On the other side of Labor Day, the economy is going to go sideways or even go back into recession, because all of the rescue money is going to be spent by Labor Day."
Trump used a Rose Garden event on Friday to showcase the new jobs report and to suggest a stronger economy could contribute to racial equality.
Left unsaid by the president was that African American unemployment inched up to 16.8% last month, the highest it’s been in more than a decade. Asian American workers' unemployment rate also rose from 14.5% to 15%. Hispanic unemployment dropped from 18.9% to 17.6%.
Trump scoffed at an African American reporter who noted the disconnect between Trump’s comments and what minority workers are enduring.
“You're something else," he retorted.
Biden, for his part, said Trump’s trumpeting of the data was tantamount to “hanging a Mission Accomplished banner,” a reference to President George W. Bush’s premature declaration of victory in the Iraq war less than six weeks into a conflict that would go on for years.
“He’s out there spiking the ball, completely oblivious to the tens of millions of people who are facing the greatest struggle of their lives,” Biden said of Trump.
Ott, the Missouri State analyst, said that Trump’s rosy take on the unemployment situation is part of his broader effort to spin dark numbers into gold.
“If the sun comes up, Trump is responsible, and it’s the most beautiful sunrise in the history of the planet,” Ott said. “Conversely, when something negative happens, Trump blames others even if he is directly responsible for it.”