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Trump and the US economy: What can he take credit for?

October 29, 2020

Donald Trump promised to tear up trade deals and bring back jobs to the US Rust Belt lost to globalization. Pandemic aside, the American economy has boomed since 2016, but how much is down to the president's policies?

Workers assemble cars at the newly renovated Ford's Assembly Plant in Chicago
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Young

In the 2016 US presidential election, large swaths of working-class Barack Obama voters switched their support to Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise to "Make America Great Again." 

Vowing to drain the Washington "swamp" that he said had sold millions of US jobs overseas, the billionaire businessman and reality TV show host struck a chord with voters, who had, for years, tolerated the offshoring of high-paying jobs, stagnant or falling wages, and rising job insecurity.

By August 2018, Trump was boasting that half a million manufacturing jobs had been created during the first two years of his presidency and that his aggressive, protectionist policies, which included tearing up trade agreements, imposing tariffs on foreign aluminum and steel and the wider US-China trade war, were benefiting the American people.

No Rust Belt revival 

A report by the Economic Policy Institute published in August contradicted his claims, however. It found that far from reenergizing the so-called Rust Belt — former industrial areas of the northeastern US that had seen a sharp economic decline since the 1990s — more manufacturing jobs left the US than were created during Trump's first two years in office.

The Washington-based think tank wrote: "President Trump's erratic, ego-driven and inconsistent trade policies have not achieved any measurable progress, despite the newly combative rhetoric. On top of that, COVID-19 — and the administration's mismanagement of the crisis — have wiped out much of the last decade's job gains in US manufacturing."

As the president bids for a second term in the White House, he faces derision for his inconsistent response to the coronavirus pandemic. So, trailing his Democratic rival Joe Biden, Trump is playing up the economic successes of his first term.

In the first TV debate against Biden, for example, he claimed that he had "brought back" 700,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector. In realty since Trump took office, the bottom line is that 237,000 industrial jobs have been lost, according to fact-checkers at Politifact, a non-profit group.

Record-high stock market

US workers making face masks
The coronavirus pandemic came at an untimely moment for Donald Trump, who's seeking reelection in NovemberImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Weiss

US stock markets, he regularly boasts, have skyrocketed under his leadership, even after the initial shock of the pandemic lockdown. Since he took office in January 2017, the Dow Jones is up nearly 40% and at around 27,000 is not far from the previous high of 29,570 in February this year. The NASDAQ has more than doubled in value. 

Many economists, however, say the stock market boom began under his predecessor Barack Obama and was fueled by trillions of dollars in quantitative easing by the US Federal Reserve and stock buybacks by the likes of Apple, Microsoft and Google's parent, Alphabet. Main Street hasn't benefitted from the meteoric stock market rise as much as corporate America.

"Pre-pandemic: In terms of growth, employment gains and inflation, the US economy has performed about the same as under the Obama administration," Joel Prakken, chief US economist at IHS Markit, told DW. Asked what economic successes Trump can take credit for, he added: "Little, if any."

Tax cuts boosted wealthy

Tax cuts are another of Trump's proudest achievements. In 2017, the top individual tax rate was cut from 39.6% to 37% until 2025, while corporate taxes were reduced permanently from 35% to 21%. Prakken said the cuts had helped boost the stock market by 5-7% but had also led to a "significant increase in the US budget deficit with potential negative long-run implications for the US standard of living."

In a report shortly after the tax package went into effect, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center wrote that the top 20% of Americans enjoyed more than 60% of Trump's tax savings. Economists said any boost to consumer spending and business investment was shortlived and that little of the benefit had trickled down to low-income Americans. Despite this, Trump has promised to make the individual tax cuts permanent if reelected and plans to slash payroll taxes.

'Free and fair' trade deals

Trump has often stressed his "America First" trade stance — including the levying of billions of dollars of tit-for-tat tariffs with China — which he said had gained an unfair advantage over the US. The president insists his policies have pressured multinationals to bring jobs back home and forced other nations to open their restricted markets to US firms. The tax cuts provided further encouragement, he said.

Read more: EU pushes China on trade, human rights at virtual summit

"Tariffs on China haven't done much for the manufacturing sector, but have undercut farm income," Prakken told DW, adding that there hasn't been a notable shift in direct foreign investment coming into the US from Trump's policies, while thousands of American farmers went out of business when Beijing restricted US agricultural imports.

In July, NAFTA 2.0 — an update of the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico — came into force. But despite promises that it would bring 180,000 new US jobs, the trade deal has no provision to stop work being outsourced to low-cost Mexico. Car manufacturers have continued to relocate their US plants across the border.

Election research shows that economic development just before the election can be decisive, says Prakken. "Most models of the economy's impact on US presidential elections stress the role of [low] unemployment and income growth 6-9 months before the election."

After the coronavirus lockdown in the spring that saw a record 40 million layoffs, Trump had hoped for a quick recovery of the US economy. And indeed, many economic indicators pointed up again in the summer.

In the meantime, however, the number of infections has risen to new record levels. This week for the first time there were 70,000 new cases within 24 hours. All of this endangers the slight summer recovery. For Trump an election day in early November, in the middle of the next wave of the coronavirus pandemic, is just a bit too early.