WASHINGTON — President Trump is using the prepandemic economy to make a case for his re-election, highlighting time and again that unemployment rates fell to record low levels for Black and Hispanic workers in 2019, and that wages were climbing steadily under his watch.
He is also seeking to convince voters that he is rapidly returning America to that prosperous place following waves of pandemic-wrought job loss — fostering what he labeled a “Super V” rebound on Sunday — and that Joseph R. Biden Jr. would “destroy” the economy if he wins in November.
But Mr. Trump’s story line about his economic track record, particularly what he showcased during his Republican National Convention speech last month, leaves out a crucial detail. Lucky timing and a patient Federal Reserve was pivotal in driving the strong labor market of the late 2010s, economists said. The Trump administration’s tax cuts and higher government spending temporarily nudged the economy, but the trade wars cooled it off, so the administration’s track record was mixed.
That complicated reality is unlikely to stop Mr. Trump from laying claim to the successes of the 2018 and 2019 job market. But voters who want to understand what drove such strong hiring and growth might be better off looking at the actions of the Fed and its chair, Jerome H. Powell, whom Mr. Trump nominated in late 2017 and then spent more than a year attacking on Twitter and in speeches.
By retaining his predecessor’s patient approach to rate increases — and then stopping them altogether as inflation, which the central bank tries to keep under control, hovered at low levels — Mr. Powell’s Fed helped to keep the longest economic expansion in United States history chugging along. The stretch of unbroken growth pushed unemployment to its lowest level in 50 years, prompting companies to cast a wider net for employees, pulling long-sidelined workers back into jobs.
“Both monetary and fiscal policy were stimulative, and it did lead to a strong labor market,” said Stephanie Aaronson, a former Fed researcher who is now at the Brookings Institution. Very low inflation “has given policymakers the latitude to try new things.”
That matters as more than a talking point: It could fundamentally shape the post-pandemic economy. The Fed has signaled that it intends to leave rates low to push unemployment down again, which could help return the labor market to strong levels. But the challenges posed by business closures and job reshuffling mean that elected officials, who have taxing and spending powers that the Fed lacks, may prove crucial to the speed and scope of the rebound.
“The single most important thing we can do here is to support a strong labor market,” Mr. Powell said in late August remarks. “That is more of an all-governmental society project,” and “to wait to the eighth and ninth year of the cycle to get those results — we can do better than that with other policies.”
To be sure, it is easy to overstate how strong conditions were before the pandemic struck.
About 83 percent of adults in their prime working years were in the labor force at the start of 2020, which was a marked improvement but still down from an 84.6 percent high in the late 1990s. Inequality prevailed. Wage growth had picked up from the expansion’s early years, but it remained shy of historical records.
But there is no doubt that the prepandemic job market was robust. Unemployment had declined to 3.5 percent, its lowest level in half a century. Prime-age workers who had dropped out of the labor market were surprising economists by applying for jobs. Unemployment for Black and Hispanic workers hit record lows, and pay was picking up for those who earned the least.
Now, the pandemic recession has thrown millions out of work, hitting disadvantaged groups especially hard. Black unemployment stood at 13 percent in August, for instance, compared to 7.3 percent for white workers.
Mr. Trump is already taking a victory lap as the job market begins to heal, calling the rebound “the fastest labor market recovery from an economic crisis in history” during a Sunday news conference. But about half of the people who have lost jobs since February remain unemployed. Economists have warned that the return to full strength could become a grinding process, and Mr. Powell has said that some workers may struggle to return to jobs.
Understanding the policy mix that helped make the labor market so strong in 2019 will be critical to putting the United States back on track for another robust period of growth.
Some of the policies pushed through by Mr. Trump and lawmakers did help to bolster economic growth, which can drive hiring, economists said. The government was spending more freely, and the administration’s signature tax cuts, passed in late 2017, seem to have delivered a fleeting jolt to the economy.
Economists at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Wharton Budget Model say that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act helped growth to jump to about 3 percent for 2018, but the effect faded as growth returned to 2.2 percent in 2019.
“We don’t project any material impact on growth from T.C.J.A. in 2019 or going forward,” said Alexander Arnon, a senior analyst at the Penn Wharton Budget Model, a research center that analyzes and predicts the effects of tax and other policy changes on the federal budget.
Data make it clear that the administration’s policies were not the whole story.
A chart of employment gains over the expansion show that they continued with remarkable consistency, month over month and year after year, starting from around 2010. The jobless rate slowly and steadily dropped. And people gradually trickled back from the labor market’s sidelines.
Much of the improvement seems to have been driven by a long, steady economic expansion, creating a self-sustaining cycle in which workers got hired, spent more and fueled demand that created more jobs.
Fed policy helped to enable the progress. Starting under Mr. Powell’s predecessor Janet L. Yellen, the central bank chose to lift interest rates at a historically slow pace, treading carefully to avoid crashing the expansion while also trying to avoid runaway inflation.
Mr. Powell, who assumed the Fed chair in February 2018, raised rates four times during his first year — still a much slower pace than in prior business cycles — before pausing in early 2019 as markets gyrated. Under his watch, the central bank allowed the unemployment rate to fall to recent lows without trying to offset that change, and even lowered interest rates in the second half of 2019 to help sustain the expansion amid Mr. Trump’s trade war, which included steep tariffs on Chinese goods.
Mr. Trump himself was publicly pushing for rate cuts, viewing that as a way to make the economy take off like a “rocket.” He regularly criticized Mr. Powell for the 2018 rate increases and then the slow pace of 2019 rate cuts. The president implied that Mr. Powell was an “enemy” and called the Fed chair and his colleagues “boneheads” for not pursuing easier monetary policy sooner.
But the Fed sets rates independently of the White House and consistently ignored his advice. When it did move, it neither did so at the speed the president sought, nor by using the emergency monetary tools that he wanted.
The good news for the post-crisis recovery and rebound is that the Fed is likely to again let unemployment fall sharply.
In an update to its long-run framework in late August, the Fed officially signaled that it will no longer raise interest rates because of a low unemployment rate alone, effectively codifying the practice adopted last year.
The bad news is that the central bank is low on ammunition to prod the economy. It was able to cut interest rates by only 1.5 percentage points when the pandemic started, compared to cuts that totaled about 5 percent during the prior two recessions. Relying too much on low rates could make for another very gradual recovery — one like the last long expansion, which took nearly a decade to really pull workers in from the sidelines.
“We really need it to be broader than just the Fed,” Mr. Powell said of post-pandemic labor market policies, speaking at the Kansas City Fed’s conference in late August.
Mr. Trump and his allies are correct in arguing that leadership from the White House could matter enormously. Government taxing and spending will be paramount to the strength of the coming business cycle.
“President Trump and a President Biden would pursue different fiscal policy paths,” said Michael Strain, who studies economic policy at the American Enterprise Institute. “There might also be differences in how they pursue the public health situation.”
Most economists argue that more government spending will be important to keeping America on a path toward full recovery. There is less agreement over shutdown versus reopening: Some stress the primacy of controlling the virus, while others argue that the costs to business and jobs are too steep.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” Mr. Strain said.
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