White House Cheers Numbers On Jobs, Border Crossings

Mar 10, 2017
Originally published on March 10, 2017 3:57 pm

The White House is celebrating some encouraging numbers this week. Factory jobs are up. Illegal border crossings are down.

The new administration is claiming credit on both fronts, although much of the change so far is psychological.

The Labor Department released its first monthly jobs report of the new Trump administration Friday. The numbers were solid, if not spectacular. U.S. employers added 235,000 jobs in February. Gains were especially strong in manufacturing, construction and oil drilling.

"I would characterize it as a very good report," said Chief Economist Nariman Behravesh of IHS Markit. "We had very strong, back-to-back gains in jobs in January and February. That puts us in a very good position. We've got some momentum going in the labor market. So this is good news."

During the campaign, Trump repeatedly called the government's unemployment numbers "phony" — arguing the jobless rate was higher than reported. Asked about the change in tune, press secretary Sean Spicer quoted Trump in Friday's press briefing: "They may have been phony in the past but it's very real now."

The administration was so eager to trumpet that good news, officials ignored a long-standing rule to withhold comment for at least an hour after the official report. The president waited just 11 minutes before retweeting a Drudge Report item with the jobs number and the headline "GREAT AGAIN." His press secretary followed 11 minutes later.

Some forecasters were expecting even stronger job gains, after an encouraging private payroll report earlier in the week. Hiring in February was roughly on par with the last month of the Obama administration, as well as hiring this time last year.

"It's important to remember that President Trump inherited an economy that was already making steady progress towards full employment," said economist Elise Gould of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. "Today's numbers of 235,000 are very much in line with what we saw in January — 238,000 jobs added — or what we saw in February of last year — 237,000 jobs."

Even if the latest jobs report was not a barn burner, it was certainly encouraging. Unemployment inched down to 4.7 percent, and hundreds of thousands of new people started looking for work.

"There definitely has been an improvement in business confidence since the election, even before Mr. Trump took office," Behravesh said. "Small-business confidence, for example, soared. Overall business confidence has improved. Consumer confidence has improved. So I think there is a confidence effect and that is translating into jobs growth."

The young Trump presidency is having a different kind of psychological effect on the Southwest border, where the number of illegal crossings fell by an estimated 40 percent last month. Would-be migrants tell NPR they've been discouraged by the president's get-tough rhetoric as well as increased deportations. As with job growth, the White House painted the drop in illicit border crossings as a sign of progress.

"These measures reflect that both the economy and the border are already responding to the president's agenda, even while we're still in the beginning stages of putting his policies in place," said Spicer. "The country and the world are clearly ready and waiting for the change the president campaigned on and is already delivering."

The stock market is also on a roll, with the Dow up nearly 14 percent since the November election. Many of these gains are based on expectations about what Trump has promised to do, rather than what he has already done.

"There is some concern that businesses are getting ahead of themselves in the sense that while there's been a lot of good talk about rolling back regulations, about cutting taxes, there's only been very, very limited progress so far," Behravesh said. "So the worry is that we could be setting ourselves up for disappointment."

For the moment, the White House is happy to tout some positive results, as it begins the tougher task of pushing a contentious legislative agenda.

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