President Donald Trump smiles during a meeting with
Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini in the Oval
Office of the White House, Friday, May 3, 2019, in
NEW YORK — The lowest
unemployment rate in a half century. More than 260,000 new jobs. And
higher hourly wages.
"I'll be running on the economy," President Donald Trump declared on
Friday. And why wouldn't he?
The day's new round of sunny employment figures offered fresh
evidence of a strong national economy — and a big political
advantage for Trump just as the 2020 presidential campaign begins to
intensify. Stocks are at or near record levels , too, as the
president often notes.
Democrats pointed to regional disparities in the new government
report. And overall income inequality hasn't narrowed.
But the Democrats who are fighting to deny the Republican president
a second term are beginning to acknowledge the weight of their
challenge: Since World War II, no incumbent president has ever lost
re-election in a growing economy.
Even Trump's critics are forced to admit the state of the economy
could help him at the ballot box.
"Relative to all the other terrible aspects of Trump's record, the
economy is more of an asset to him," said Geoff Garin, a veteran
pollster whose clients include Priorities USA, the most powerful
super PAC in Democratic politics.
Indeed, it was a day of celebration for Trump and his allies, who
have been well aware of recent warnings that the economy might slow
The president's chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said the
United States has entered "a very strong and durable prosperity
cycle." He gave all the credit to his boss: "He is president of the
By most measures, the U.S. economy is in solid shape. It is
expanding at a roughly 3% pace, businesses are posting more jobs
than there are unemployed workers and wage growth, long the
economy's weak spot, has picked up.
All these trends are helping lift a broader swath of the population
than in the first five years or so after the Great Recession.
Low-income workers are actually seeing healthy wage gains — larger
than everyone else's. In March, the poorest one-quarter of workers
were earning 4.4% more than a year earlier, according to data
compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. The richest
one-quarter were up 3%.
Lower-income workers had started to outpace their higher-paid
counterparts in 2015, so it's not a Trump phenomenon. And part of
the increase has occurred because of minimum wage hikes by more than
The news isn't good for everyone.
Workers in metro areas are still getting larger pay increases than
those in smaller towns or rural areas, according to the Atlanta
Fed's data. In fact, that gap that has widened since Trump was
And overall income inequality hasn't narrowed. The richest 5 percent
of Americans earned 3.4 times a median worker's pay in 2018,
according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. That's up
from 3.3 times as much in 2016.
In Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in a region Trump carried three years
ago, county archivist Barbara Bartos said the president's policies
have helped a lot of people although she's seen little economic
"I think he should get credit where credit is due," said Bartos, a
69-year-old registered Democrat who backed Hillary Clinton. "And I
think that he helped a lot of people but left a lot of people out."
Three hundred miles to the west in Cleveland, another former Clinton
supporter, 42-year-old IT manager Jessica Wieber, said she feels
"pretty good" about her economic situation.
"I think he's had a big impact," she said of Trump's effect on the
economy, adding that tax breaks given to companies and corporations
have allowed them to hire more workers.
"I hope it helps trickle down a bit," said Wieber, a single mom with
Amid the largely positive news for Trump, friends and foes alike
question whether he can stay focused on the economy as the 2020
contest plays out. Blessed with similarly positive news in the past,
he has veered into more controversial topics like immigration, the
Russia investigation and personal attacks against his rivals.
Democrats, in fact, are counting on him to change the subject.
"The economic indicators would normally be incredibly positive for
an incumbent president," said Jefrey Pollock, the pollster for
Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's presidential campaign. However,
the pollster said hopefully and somewhat rudely, "He can't shut his
At this point, 18 months before Election Day, Trump's political
standing is far weaker than the economic numbers would suggest.
The latest CNN poll finds 43% of Americans approve of the way he is
handling his job as president. That's even as 56% say they approve
of his handling of the economy, marking a high for the president
since he took office.
He receives lower marks for other issues, including health care,
immigration and foreign policy.
Specific candidates aside, the General Social Survey, a respected
nationwide survey, has found that the share of Americans feeling
satisfied with their finances has returned to pre-recession levels.
In 2018, about a third expressed satisfaction with their financial
situation, up from 23% in 2010. About 4 in 10 said their finances
had been improving over the previous few years, while just 15% felt
In 2010, more than twice as many said their financial situations
were getting worse.
Last month, the government report said, the African American
unemployment rate was 6.7%, up from a record-low 5.9% last May.
That's more than double the rate for whites. And in 2017, according
to the latest data available, the black-white income gap widened,
with the typical African American household earning $40,258, while
the equivalent white figure was $68,145.
Still, the Asian and Latino unemployment rates hit or matched record
lows in April.
By some measures, the job market has been better in the past.
A much smaller proportion of Americans are working than in the late
1990s, the last time unemployment was nearly this low. Part of that
is because the United States is aging and baby boomers are retiring.
But even among workers aged 25 through 54, which filters out the
impact of retirement and increased college attendance, a smaller
percentage of people are working: In April 79.7% had jobs. That
figure peaked at 81.9% back in 2000.
How much all this will affect the election is an open question.
Ray Fair, a Yale University economist who uses economic data to
model election outcomes, says that the state of the economy in the
first three quarters of an election year matters more than the rest
of a president's term.
Fair's model points to a Trump victory in 2020, should the economy
continue along its current path.
However, "This doesn't take into account the personalities," Fair
said. "Trump is an unusual person."