Underrating Trump’s Economic Record

President Trump addresses supporters on the airport tarmac in Cleveland, Ohio, August 6, 2020. (Joshua Robert/Reuters)

John Harwood, writing for CNN’s website, says that “Trump will leave office in January with a historically bad record on the economy. . . . Alone among the 13 presidents since World War Two, Trump will exit the White House with fewer Americans employed than when he started. He will have overseen punier growth in economic output than any of the previous 12 presidents.”

I have two-and-a-half disagreements which lead me to a more positive assessment of Trump’s economic record than Harwood’s.

First, Harwood underestimates the breadth of income gains during the last few years. He writes, “The President can also cite a higher-than-average 3.32% annual gain in real per capita disposable income. But that average conceals the extent of those gains that flowed to the affluent, who benefited disproportionately from his tax cuts.”

I am not sure how Harwood got that exact figure, but it’s in the ballpark of what the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows. The most recent numbers we have on median household income are from before the pandemic. But they show growth of 3.4 percent per year in inflation-adjusted income for people in the middle of the income spectrum during the first three years of Trump’s term.

Second, Harwood notes that stocks have risen faster under Trump than they did under Obama but dismisses these gains because they “have largely been driven by rock-bottom interest rates.” Yet interest rates were higher during most of Trump’s presidency than they were during most of Obama’s.

Third, Harwood counts all COVID-related economic trends against Trump, reasoning that presidents have to respond to catastrophes and that Trump’s response has been “bungled.” Including 2020 in a review of economic statistics under Trump is a defensible choice: Every president’s record reflects circumstances beyond his control. But it’s also reasonable to note that anyone would have presided over severe economic turmoil this year.

Most voters appear not to have held the economy’s plunge earlier this year against the president. According to AP VoteCast, most voters thought the economy was doing badly — but also trusted Trump, rather than Joe Biden, on handling it. Perhaps there is some sense in the public’s implicit parceling out of responsibility.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.