President Trump claimed vindication Friday as a surprise positive jobs report previewed what he called the “greatest comeback in American history” for a coronavirus-crippled economy — and perhaps for his own reelection campaign.
Unemployment dropped to 13.3% in May as the economy added 2.5 million jobs, the Department of Labor reported. Forecasters had expected a loss of 8 million jobs and an unemployment rate of 20%. Trump himself might not have been expecting such success so soon. He had been predicting a “transition to greatness” as federal relief spending and reopening from the coronavirus-induced shutdowns pulled the economy out of a Depression-like stupor into a strong fourth quarter followed by “through the roof” growth next year.
“I think you’re going to have a very good August, maybe July,” Trump said in the Rose Garden Friday. “Maybe a spectacular September.”
“Having these positive job numbers is exactly just what America needed at the end of one of the most challenging weeks our country has faced in quite some time,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “As the country is opening back up for business, so is the American economy, and hopefully, the trend will keep moving in the right direction.”
Democrats found themselves on the defensive, downplaying the numbers and especially dismissing the significance of states ending their lockdowns. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden already had a speech reacting to the jobs reports planned. New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman speculated the Bureau of Labor Statistics might be cooking the books, though he later backed off the idea.
“The May jobs report serves as an emphatic reminder about the strength of President Trump’s economic record,” Republican National Committee spokesman Steve Guest said in a statement. “He built the greatest economy once, and now he is doing it again.”
Trump was in a celebratory mood at the White House. He had pushed for reopening the economy at a time when public health experts, and many Democratic governors, were skeptical. He has boosted the Paycheck Protection Program, signing some enhancements into law on Friday, which has kept some small businesses afloat during the pandemic. And though the latest economic news may dampen GOP enthusiasm for a new round of massive spending, especially what some conservatives have dubbed a “blue-state bailout,” Trump said he was not done looking at ways to get the economy moving.
“We will be going for a payroll tax cut,” the president told reporters, as well as “asking for more stimulus money.” Contrary to numerous reports, Trump did not actually say George Floyd, the black man whose death in police custody has triggered nationwide protests. But he did express hope that an economic renewal would help bring the country back together.
“What’s happened to our country and what you now see, it’s been happening, is the greatest thing that can happen for race relations, for the African American community, for the Asian American [community], for the Hispanic American community, for women, for everything,” Trump said. “Because our country is so strong. And that’s what my plan is.”
Black unemployment was up from 16.7% to 16.8% in May, as Biden was quick to point out, but part of that reflects an increase in the number of African American workers entering the labor force. Black employment rose by 283,000.
An unemployment rate of over 13% is still high. Not all small businesses will reopen, leaving some people out of work longer term. Some senior citizens, a crucial demographic for Trump in November, remain skeptical about reopening due to virus concerns. And Trump has been hammered in the headlines for his handling of the Floyd protests, as he pressed state and local officials to regain control of their cities from looters and the more violent demonstrators.
Friday’s jobs numbers are nevertheless a step in the right direction for Trump on an issue that could decide whether he wins a second term. He continued to receive high marks for the economy in many polls, even as job losses mounted. A recovery could help him close the gap with Biden nationally and add to the momentum behind continued economic reopening.
“When the May jobs report was released, it was the groan heard ’round the world among Democrats and the Biden-leaning national media,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “And frankly, it couldn’t have come at a better time for President Trump, who is battling the Chinese virus, a pandemic-induced weak economy, and the largest civil unrest in recent memory.”
“Should the great economic comeback trend continue, it will significantly boost President Trump’s reelection chances in November,” O’Connell added. “If the central question on the voters’ minds is who would you prefer to rebuild the economy and the country following these catastrophic setbacks, Biden or Trump, then Trump the builder will most likely be the victor.”