This tweet captures a lot of what was happening at that moment, including how Romney — and Trump — were going after the incumbent president. The federal deficit and the increasing debt were constant targets of Trump’s, powering tweet after tweet meant to convince his followers to vote the Democrat out of office. He tweeted about slow job growth, about record deficits and about the expanding trade deficit, particularly with China. Trump was new to politics but he’d chosen an angle that ran in parallel to Romney’s: economy-focused deficit hawk.
By that standard, it seems likely that the 2012 iteration of Donald Trump would similarly oppose the reelection in 2020 of President Donald Trump.
On Friday, the Treasury Department offered an update on how the federal deficit grew in fiscal year 2020, which ended on Sept. 30. Thanks to increased spending meant to ameliorate the effects of the pandemic, the deficit hit a record $3.1 trillion, by far the highest mark in history.
The massive bailout effort had an important goal, of course, which was to bolster an economy slammed by efforts to contain the deadly coronavirus. But, of course, the spending early in Obama’s first term was similarly aimed at boosting a battered economy. Then, Romney railed against the lunacy of adding $5 trillion in debt over four years.
In Trump’s four years, the deficit has increased by a cumulative $5.6 trillion.
We can add a number of valid qualifiers, including that the $3.1 trillion increase happened relative to an already higher federal debt. As a percentage of where the debt stood when Obama and Trump first took office, the increase under Obama was still larger.
Then there’s that point about the reason for the spending: the pandemic. Much of Obama’s first term in office was spent trying to get Americans back to work. A few months before voters went to the polls in 2012, the country had finally returned to the level of employment it saw when Obama first took office.
When Trump took over, the economy continued to add jobs at the same pace as it had in Obama’s second term. But then the pandemic landed, and Trump is poised to close out his first term with the country having lost jobs on net — a historic anomaly.
Here, again, we can add some nuance. Trump supporters will certainly argue that the drop in employment wasn’t Trump’s fault. Setting aside how eagerly Trump blamed Obama for tepid job growth, this argument assumes that nothing more could have been done to bolster employment. This is a tricky counterfactual to evaluate, but given the alacrity with which Trump has touted “adding” more than 11 million jobs since April — a curious phrasing, given that many of these jobs were temporary layoffs — it seems fair to question when job losses actually should be credited to the sitting president.
Particularly given how Trump insisted that Obama be judged on the “real” unemployment rate.
Here, too, Trump compares unfavorably. The unemployment rate at the moment is 7.9 percent, about where it was when Trump offered that complaint. The government also has other measures of unemployment, though, including what’s called the U-6, which is a measure of “total unemployed, plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force.”
Under Obama, that rate slowly declined. It was declining under Trump, too — until the pandemic. The U-6 rate is currently 12.8 percent, less than the 14.4 percent in November 2012, but it’s up much more over Trump’s presidency than it was for Obama.
Then there’s the trade deficit. During Trump’s first term in office, the trade deficit has repeatedly hit new highs. Despite his insistence in 2016 that he would reduce that deficit (and despite his excoriations of Obama on that metric), the United States still imports more than it exports.
For Trump, the metric to watch isn’t the deficit or the change in the U-6. It’s the stock markets. And by that metric … Trump is still not outperforming Obama.
Yes, yes, the pandemic. The pandemic kneecapped the economy and hurt job growth and inflated the deficit. All true. But, again, Obama’s first term was defined by the recession he inherited and, thanks in part to constrained federal spending, his first four years in office were spent repairing the damage. Trump has had less time to dig the country out of the damage caused by the pandemic, certainly, but it’s clear that his promised “V-shaped recovery” hasn’t yet manifested.
In fact, the number of people permanently out of work continues to expand.
There are now as many people who are permanently unemployed as there were in May 2013, when the figure was trending downward.
These numbers will probably play only a tacit role in how voters evaluate Trump’s term in office this November. One does wonder, though, how Donald Trump would have viewed them had they belonged to Barack Obama in November 2012.