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• The numbers show that Trump, as of now, is the only president since at least Harry Truman to preside over an overall decline in jobs.
• However, the economy’s performance under Trump has been hampered by a pandemic that caused an unusually swift and severe recession, and no post-World War II president experienced an equivalent blow.
• Any president who served during the 2020 pandemic would almost certainly have experienced a major hit to employment.
In a short video shared on social media, the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden criticized President Donald Trump’s handling of the economy.
The video tracks across a graph of how many jobs were created under each president since Harry Truman. Only Trump is shown with a negative number.
In tweeting the video, Biden said, "Donald Trump claimed he would be 'the greatest jobs president God ever created.' But the fact is he's the worst jobs president in recorded history."
We found that the historical comparison is missing a lot of context.
The employment numbers for each president in the ad closely track with data produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (The chart below is color-coded by the president’s political party.) We’ve begun with Truman because Biden’s ad starts there, and also because statistics for his Depression-era predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt, are only annual averages and aren’t as precise.
This measure — and the decline in jobs under Trump — leaves out critical context about how long the president served and what was happening in the economic background.
Biden’s ad lumps together two-term presidents with those who served for a shorter period. One of the presidents who hasn’t served two terms at this point is Trump.
In addition, the endpoint for Trump’s number is fixed during a once-a-century pandemic that has devastated employment. The pandemic has also led to a lot of volatility in the employment picture, as workers are called back or kept away from work depending on variations in the virus’ impact in particular geographic areas.
It’s impossible to know what the jobs picture will look like when the election is held, or when a president is sworn in on Jan. 20.
For this type of comparison, small changes in the parameters can produce big differences in outcomes.
For example, if you looked at the first three years of each president’s tenure, Trump fares a lot better.
This comparison is closer to being apples to apples than what Biden offered, but it still isn’t comprehensive.
Another way to look at the numbers is to compare the presidents at the worst economic point in their presidency. This is the month that the National Bureau of Economic Research determines is the "trough" of a recession. (As noted in the chart, some presidents didn’t face recessions, or saw the trough hit during their successor’s tenure.)
In the comparison above, Trump fared the worst of any president, but he has plenty of company in negative territory, with Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama all experiencing job losses. Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush barely came out in positive territory.
The biggest reason for the unusually large losses on Trump’s watch, of course, is the historically swift and severe nature of the recession caused by the coronavirus.
The Biden campaign argues that Trump bears some responsibility for the pandemic’s severity, and as a result, for the depth of the recession.
Due in part to Trump’s policies, the campaign said, the United States became the global leader in coronavirus cases in late March and continues to lead the world today, with a daily death count more than three times as high as the European continent. They cited a June analysis by Moody’s that half of those who were laid off due to the virus would not have lost their jobs if the administration’s response had been more effective.
Still, if Biden had been president when the virus hit instead, it’s doubtful he could have avoided a major employment shock. Asked in an August interview with ABC News whether he would shutter economic activity if scientists said it was necessary, Biden said, "I would shut it down."
Ultimately, linking the state of the economy to a president’s policies is often exaggerated. While a president’s enactment of tax cuts or budgetary investments can certainly have an effect on the economy, other factors — such as oil shocks, new technologies or international events — have a big impact as well. "These outcomes are more driven by lucky or unlucky timing than actual policy," said Steve Fazzari, an economist at Washington University in St. Louis.
"This is the sort of cheap politics that is absolutely standard for campaigns," said Dean Baker, co-founder of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research. "The reality is that policy is far less responsible for the good or bad things that happen on a president's watch than is generally believed. Jimmy Carter didn't cause the Iranian revolution and the huge surge in oil prices that followed, but he sure took the blame for it."
Biden said that Trump is "the worst jobs president in recorded history."
The raw numbers show that Trump, as of now, is the only president since at least Truman to see an overall decline in jobs on their watch.
However, this comparison is less than meets the eye. The economy’s performance under Trump has been hampered by a pandemic that caused an unusually swift and severe recession, and the virus is still spreading. No president in Biden’s comparison experienced an equivalent blow.
Any president who served during the 2020 pandemic almost certainly would have experienced a major hit to employment just like Trump did.
We rate the statement Half True.
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Joe Biden, tweeted video, Sept. 18, 2020
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, nonfarm employment, accessed Sept. 23, 2020
National Bureau of Economic Research, list of U.S. recessions, accessed Sept. 23, 2020
Associated Press, "Biden says he’d shut down economy if scientists recommended," Aug. 23, 2020
Email interview with Gary Burtless, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Sept. 23, 2020
Email interview with Dean Baker, co-founder of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, Sept. 23, 2020
Email interview with Steve Fazzari, economist at Washington University in St. Louis, Sept. 23, 2020
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