- - Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A soft jobs market could help Donald Trump win the White House if he presents a coherent program to fire up growth and puts substance into his promise to restore American greatness.

The economy added only 38,000 jobs in May. While that figure was somewhat depressed by the Verizon strike, the pace of jobs creation has been trending down since 2014, and the Obama recovery has accomplished only about half the rate of jobs and gross domestic product growth as the Reagan expansion.

The headline unemployment rate — 4.7 percent — is terribly misleading. Too many Americans have given up even looking for work and don’t get counted, and were the adult labor force participation the same today as prior to the financial crisis, the unemployment rate would be 9.3 percent.

For most African-Americans, the recession never ended. The adjusted unemployment figure is 11.7 percent, family incomes are down more than $2,200 on President Obama’s watch, and the wealth gap with whites has widened significantly.

Men without a college education and many minorities have been hit hard by competition from imports and illegal immigration, technologies that permit businesses to replace more workers with smart machines and robots, and the shift toward knowledge-based growth in health care, information technology-based services and the like.

Certainly, badly negotiated and enforced trade agreements and lax border enforcement have exacerbated these pressures. However, schools in working-class and minority communities often do not prepare young people to hold a decent-paying job, enroll in training programs for technicians and various specialties in short supply, or enter college majors with decent prospects in knowledge-based industries.

Hillary Clinton has her jobs program — generalizing to a national-level government micromanagement of hiring and pay along the lines of California’s Fair Pay Act, punishing U.S. firms that invest abroad, and bigger subsidies for universities. While these may make many women, unionists and liberal educators happy, those won’t address the huge costs imposed by a $500 billion trade deficit, nearly 11 million illegal workers competing with native-born Americans for jobs, and dysfunctional public schools.

Less-educated, disaffected white males have been critical for Mr. Trump’s ascent to the Republican nomination. However, to assemble a winning combination of states in the general election — through the traditional Republican path of capturing, along with Florida and Ohio, swing states like Virginia and Iowa, or northern-tier states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, or putting California and a few other deep-blue states in play — he must peel away some of Mrs. Clinton’s support among more educated voters, minorities and women.

Attacking Mrs. Clinton’s character is not enough. Mr. Trump has given us ample reason to question his, too. If ranting “crooked Hillary” were enough, he would be ahead in national polls, but he is not.

Mr. Trump must shift focus to explain in concrete terms how he would use his big tariff and the leverage the United States has with China to get a better deal on trade, convince multinationals to invest in America again, and create good-paying jobs, as opposed to simply starting a trade war and thrusting financial markets into chaos.

He must explain how he will convince the Mexican government to stop permitting its territory to be a conduit for migrants from Central America and elsewhere, and reasonably deal with illegal immigrants already here without fueling racial animus.

And he must tell us how he will strengthen and redirect our schools and universities to educate young people to better compete in the global economy. Nostrums about fostering competition through vouchers and charter schools and slaying Common Core are not enough. Those would still leave in charge an education establishment devoted to political correctness and mediocrity.

His energy and foreign policy speeches were attempts in that direction but came up short.

The Trump campaign has been like an Elvis tour. Traveling from city to city, supported by a small campaign staff with little policymaking infrastructure, Donald entertains big crowds.

He hits the high notes — “make America great” and so forth — but decidedly low ones, too, with comments about Mexicans, Muslims and women.

Turning around hardening attitudes requires shifting the campaign narrative from railing against political correctness and Mrs. Clinton’s flawed record to presenting substantive, actionable strategies on trade, immigration, education and other issues, including excessive business regulation and the concerns of women.

Those could be the very foundations of new American greatness, but Mr. Trump must us tell how.

Americans would not likely elect Elvis president, either.

Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.

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