Team USA’s dominance of the Olympics isn’t the only thing Americans have to be cheerful about this week. As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton traded barbs over economic proposals, the latest jobs report showed vigorous job growth and higher wages, in a sign of consolidated recovery from the Great Recession that began a year before Barack Obama was elected. Unemployment last month was 4.9 percent, well below the historical norm, and 3 points below when Obama took office, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The economy has added more than 10 million jobs, and buying power from the average worker’s paycheck is up 4.4 percent since January 2009, undercutting Trump’s narrative of an economic hellscape caused by gross Democrat mismanagement.
Things are even better for business than for the rest of us: Corporate profits are 152 percent higher and the S&P 500 stock index is up 165 percent since Obama took office, according to FactCheck.org.
On some level, most Americans know this, and Obama is enjoying his highest approval ratings since the end of his first term: 54 percent favorable in a new CNN/ORC poll. That bodes well for Clinton, who’s up in swing-state polls in Virginia and Colorado, and running surprisingly strong in red states, including Georgia and Arizona.
But the numbers show it’s not a uniformly rosy picture. Home ownership is down 4 percent under Obama, and the number of Americans on food stamps is up one-third. Income inequality has been rising for decades, with the chasm between the richest 1 percent and the bottom 90 percent larger than anytime since 1928. The wealth gap between high- and middle-income Americans hit a record in December 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. By that key measure, both Democrats and Republicans have failed the working poor.
It’s easy to see why voters who have lost low-skilled jobs are vulnerable to Trump’s false siren that free trade is the culprit. But countless studies link the vast majority of manufacturing job losses to higher productivity and automation, not trade. And trade liberalization has generated thousands of dollars in additional annual income to average Americans, with the benefits accruing largely to poor and middle-class consumers who buy cheap imports at big-box stores. And although Trump erroneously claims otherwise, the trade deficit is down 24 percent since Obama became president.
Let’s not forget that eight years ago, economists were hailing China as the engine of 21st-century growth, and Washington was wringing its hands over the end of American economic preeminence. I was a reporter on Secretary Clinton’s trip to Beijing in February 2009, when she pleaded with Chinese leaders to keep buying US Treasuries, promising the United States would right its ship. Fast-forward to now, when, after a construction boom and credit bubble unrivaled in recent history, China’s economy is cratering, its currency is depreciating, the dollar is up, the euro’s future is uncertain, and the world is looking again to the US for economic leadership.
For voters, digesting facts isn’t easy, and figuring out which candidate has a better economic plan is even harder. Trump gave a speech on Monday that, rare for him, hewed to a familiar GOP message, vowing to slash taxes and regulation, while issuing a populist call for infrastructure and a child-care deduction. Clinton, who wants to raise taxes on the rich, lower taxes on companies that keep jobs in America, and invest in job training, assailed Trump and his billionaire and banker advisors for the same old Republican “trickle-down” snake oil that didn’t work last time.
But instead of engaging in a serious debate over taxes and spending, Trump changed the subject again, throwing more garbage in the air to divert the attention of journalists and fact-checkers who could otherwise be vetting policy proposals. Instead, the master of the media news cycle burns our brain cells on refuting his newest absurd claim, that Obama is “the founder of ISIS,” and parsing whether he incited Second Amendment diehards to kill Clinton.
The lesson Trump imbibed so well from reality-TV stardom is that if things get boring, people tune out. Macroeconomic policy may seem boring — and maybe hard for the four-time bankruptcy-seeking billionaire to comprehend. But it’s the most pressing issue for American voters, who deserve two candidates who will debate why their policies will make us all better off.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.