No more ‘monkey business’? Trump touts big jobs number as proof of improvement

President Donald Trump on Friday flipped his approach to the government’s employment report, celebrating the kind of strong showing he dismissed as phony under President Barack Obama.

The Labor Department reported that the economy created 235,000 jobs in February, above the 190,000 consensus, allowing the president to claim that business enthusiasm over his approach to taxes and regulation is already paying off. The unemployment rate ticked down 0.1 percent, to 4.7 percent.

Shortly after the numbers came out, Trump shared a Drudge Report tweet claiming the 235,000 figure means America is already “great again.”

This comes despite the fact that the February number is nearly identical to the 238,000 created in February 2015 and 237,000 created last February, the final two years of Obama’s presidency.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer tweeted: “Great news for American workers: economy added 235,000 new jobs, unemployment rate drops to 4.7 percent in first report for @POTUS Trump.”

But Trump spoke very differently about the jobs numbers in past years.

After the New Hampshire primary last year, Trump said: “Don’t believe those phony numbers when you hear 4.9 and 5 percent unemployment. The number’s probably 28, 29, as high as 35. In fact, I even heard recently 42 percent.”

In October 2012, just ahead of Obama’s re-election, Trump said: “I don’t believe the number and neither do any of the other people that have intelligence. … Because that number came out of nowhere. … I think that they did … a lot of monkey business. I’m telling you, in a month and a half from now, they will do a readjustment like has been happening for the last year and a half. They will do a readjustment and the number will be 8.2 or more.”

Of course, no such readjustment ever happened.

And the February jobs report probably had little to do with Trump, given he has yet to sign any significant fiscal legislation and is currently embroiled in a fight over repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.

“This is still largely an Obama economy. In the year ending in January 2017, job growth averaged 195,000 per month,” Moody’s Analytics Mark Zandi told CNBC. “That is a good estimate of Obama’s contribution to the February employment gain. Unseasonably mild winter weather likely added another 50,000 to the February gain. An improving global economy is responsible for about 15,000.”

The new Republican tune on the jobs number is not limited to Trump. In June 2015, when the economy created 280,000 new jobs, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady said the report was “good but not good enough.” On Friday, Brady called the February numbers a “great report.”

But Trump has a bigger problem than just flip-flopping on his view of the government’s employment figures. There is a significant chance that he won’t be able to improve on the current figures very much given the increasing tightness of the labor market and the Federal Reserve’s plans to begin a cycle of interest rate hikes next week.

The strong jobs report likely makes it certain that Fed Chair Janet Yellen will announce a quarter-point increase in the target for the federal funds rate on Wednesday. She could bump up rates two or three more times this year as the Fed sees inflation returning to 2 percent and pressure rising on wages.

A sustained Fed hiking campaign could do a lot to offset the impact of Trump’s planned stimulus package of corporate and individual rate cuts, deregulation and infrastructure spending.

It could also point the U.S. economy back toward recession after an expansion that is already among the longest on record. “We know from history that a lot of funky things happen in Fed tightening cycles,” David Rosenberg, chief economist at investment firm Gluskin Sheff and Associates, told CNBC this week. “Of the 13 cycles of rate increases since World War II, 10 landed the economy in recession,” he noted. “The three that didn’t took place in the third year of an expansion.”

It’s probably a good idea for Trump to celebrate these numbers. Because there is no guarantee he can make them much better.

—Ben White is Politico’s chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money.Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.

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