During the White House press briefing on Tuesday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made headlines when she couldn’t guarantee that President Donald Trump had never said the N-word on tape. In the course of that answer, she said something similarly surprising: that Trump had already created more jobs for black people than Obama had in eight years in office.
“This president, since he took office, in the year and a half he’s been here, has created 700,000 new jobs for African-Americans,” Sanders said on Tuesday. “When President Obama left, after eight years in office—eight years in office—he had only created 195,000 jobs for African-Americans. President Trump in his first year and a half has already tripled what President Obama did in eight years.”
This statistic—more jobs in under 19 months than in eight years!—was particularly shocking for a reason, though: It was simply not true.
Before delving in the numbers, it’s important to note that Sanders’ correction appears to offer another falsehood: The numbers for “Pres Obama” were not actually “correct,” because the time frame was so very wrong. But also for a number of other reasons.
The first problem with those numbers is obvious: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics household survey black employment rose from 15,481,000 in January 2009 to 18,436,000 in January 2017. This made for a gain of nearly 3 million jobs for black people in this country. Three million is more than 195,000. Black employment under Trump, meanwhile, has risen from 18,436,000 to 19,144,000, right around the 700,000 number Sanders cited for Trump. But, again, 3 million is more than 700,000.
It would be fair to say that Trump is on pace to surpass Obama’s total gains for black employment. That comparison wouldn’t be apples to apples, though. Obama took office in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, while Trump took office in the midst of the longest-ever recovery.
Looking back at the worst days of the Great Recession, black employment had been falling since April 2008, and wouldn’t hit bottom until October 2009, a few months after the recession technically ended. From the last years of the Obama administration through today, the U.S. labor market—both generally and for blacks in particular—has been improving at a roughly steady pace, with no notable acceleration. So Trump entered office on the winds of his predecessor’s growing economy, and Obama entered facing the disaster of his predecessor’s tanking one.
But how to explain misleading information coming from President Trump’s press shop? In this case it doesn’t actually appear to be entirely Sanders’ fault (though this episode did not make her appear to be a superstar at math). The White House Council of Economic Advisers fell on its sword, taking responsibility for the “miscommunication” with Sanders. A tweet from the CEA showed where Sanders got the 195,000 number: The CEA compared 21 month periods starting in the November before Obama and Trump’s respective terms began. From November 2008 to July 2010, black employment fell by 636,000; from November 2012 to July 2014, it rose by 831,000, for a net gain in these two time periods of 195,000 jobs. From November 2016 to July, 2018, meanwhile, there was a gain of 848,000 jobs for black people in the United States.
So in talking about “eight years in office—eight years in office,” Sanders was actually talking about the last few months of Bush’s term, plus about 37 nonsuccessive months of Obama’s 96 months in office. Obama didn’t take office until January 2009 and his first full month was February, while the CEA started ticking the clock in November 2008, crediting Obama with 162,000 job losses that happened on Bush’s watch.
This also means the CEA was crediting Trump with black job growth that occurred at the end of the Obama administration. And of course there’s the enormous period between July 2014 and November 2016 and between July 2010 and November 2012 where the CEA and Sanders just stopped counting, erasing many many months from Obama’s presidency.
Basically, what the CEA and Sanders were doing wasn’t economics in any meaningful sense, it was public relations. They couldn’t even get that right.