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Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden joined by his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during a campaign event at Alexis Dupont High School in Wilmington, Del., Aug. 12, 2020. (AP/Carolyn Kaster) Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden joined by his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during a campaign event at Alexis Dupont High School in Wilmington, Del., Aug. 12, 2020. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden joined by his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during a campaign event at Alexis Dupont High School in Wilmington, Del., Aug. 12, 2020. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde August 21, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • Biden’s statement assumes that Trump will serve one term only and that the economy won’t significantly change between now and November. 

  • The U.S. economy in April had an unemployment rate of 14.7% and more than 20 million jobs lost in just one month, record highs not seen in decades. The unemployment rate in 1933 during the Great Depression is estimated to have been around 25%.

  • Some analyses fault Trump’s response to the pandemic. Still, the pandemic likely would have wiped out job gains under Trump regardless of the response, an expert said.

The first time Joe Biden appeared with his pick for vice president, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif, he said that a Biden-Harris administration would aggressively fight COVID-19. Trump on the other hand, Biden claimed, has been golfing and unwilling to lead or take responsibility.

"We have an economic crisis and more than 16 million Americans — 16 million — still out of work," Biden said Aug. 12. "Donald Trump is on track to break another record. On track to leave office with the worst jobs record of any American president in modern history."

More than 16.3 million people were unemployed as of July, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In April, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. recorded numbers not seen in decades — the highest unemployment rate and the highest number of jobs lost in one month. But is Trump’s record on jobs on track to be the worst in modern history?

Biden’s "on track to leave office" statement assumes that Trump will serve only one term and that the economy won’t significantly change between now and November. In this unconventional time, however, there remains significant uncertainty about the economy. We aren’t rating this statement on the Truth-O-Meter right now for that reason, but we wanted to examine the claim based on what we know today.

Jobs data

In April, the U.S. economy lost more than 20 million non-farm jobs. Most of the people affected worked in restaurants, retail and other hospitality jobs directly impacted by local orders to stay home and limit outings to essential activities. PolitiFact previously found that the 20 million decrease was 10 times larger than the previous record for jobs lost in one month, which came in September 1945, when post-World War II demobilization was kicking in. Biden’s campaign pointed to the jobs lost in April as evidence for Biden’s claim.

April’s 14.7% unemployment rate was also the highest on record based on monthly unemployment rates available dating back to 1948. It’s estimated that the U.S. unemployment rate reached its highest point in 1933 during the Great Depression, around 25%.

The unemployment rate in July dipped to 10.2%; nonfarm employment rose by 1.8 million in July, 4.8 million in June, and 2.7 million in May.

Economists agree that the jobs data illustrate a devastated economy. They’ve also said it’s important to reflect on the broader picture and not just focus on select months.

In July, we fact-checked Trump’s claim that the United States was "setting record job numbers." We rated that Mostly False. Trump was referring to month-over-month job gains in May and June while ignoring the huge job losses in March and April.

"You can’t ever just look at one or two months’ data," Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the free-market American Action Forum told PolitiFact in July. "You have to provide some context or else you’re cherry-picking."

Another way to assess Biden’s statement is to look at job growth in each presidential term from January through July of the next election year, said Steven Fazzari, an economics and sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. This still doesn’t bode well for Trump.

"Going back all the way to World War II, Trump's number is the worst by a rather large margin," said Fazzari, who analyzed the data for PolitiFact. He said two other recent presidential terms had weak numbers, the first terms of both Barack Obama and George W. Bush, "but the figures for Trump's term are worse."

"Of course, the reason for this poor showing is because the current job situation is especially bad. Is this Trump's fault? In my opinion, the answer is mostly no," Fazzari said. "One can certainly argue that economic and public health policy could have been better in the past few months. But the pandemic likely would have wiped out the job gains during the Trump presidency no matter what policies were enacted."

Biden campaign spokesperson Rosemary Boeglin pointed to analyses, including some by Moody’s and by the Brookings Institution that cast some blame for the jobs lost on the federal administration’s response to the pandemic. It also flagged news reports that said the United States is the only affluent nation that has had a severe sustained outbreak for more than four months.

Experts said that reviews of employment growth over presidential terms is not particularly informative. "But because all incumbents take credit for good numbers and all challengers emphasize bad ones, even though the numbers may be largely out of the control of the president in office, the Biden claim seems fair game and has support at this point in time," Fazzari said.

Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, also said that since all Americans’ choices combine to create the greater economy, it’s better to focus on the effects of specific policies presidents advocate and implement.

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Our Sources

Rev.com, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris Speech Transcript August 12: First Campaign Event as Running Mates, Aug. 12, 2020

Email interview, Biden campaign spokesperson Rosemary Boeglin, Aug. 13, 16, 2020

Email interview, Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, Aug. 13, 2020

Email interview, Steven Fazzari, an economics and sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Aug. 14, 2020

PolitiFact, Unpacking Donald Trump’s statement on 'record job numbers’, July 24, 2020

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Civilian unemployment; Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey; Employment Situation Summary - Aug. 7, 2020 release for July 2020

The Brookings Institution, The COVID-19 crisis: How do U.S. employment and health outcomes compare to other OECD countries?, June 2, 2020

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, All Employees, Total Nonfarm (PAYEMS); Unemployment Rate for United States

Rand.org, Is the Unemployment Rate Now Higher Than It Was in the Great Depression?, May 7, 2020

UC Berkeley, Jobs Numbers across Countries since COVID-19, June 4, 2020

Moody’s Analytics, Handicapping the Paths for the Pandemic Economy, June 2, 2020

The New York Times, Despite Historic Plunge, Europe’s Economy Flashes Signs of Recovery, July 31, 2020

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Miriam Valverde

A closer look at Joe Biden’s attack on Donald Trump’s jobs record