Job Creation During Recent Presidencies

Bill McBrideBill McBride wrote a very informative article over at Calculated Risk, Public and Private Sector Payroll Jobs: Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama. The general information should not surprise anyone: Democratic administrations are much better for job growth than Republican administrations. Of course, we need to remember that this isn’t necessarily a question of policy. The truth is that the economy did well during Reagan and Clinton largely because of Federal Reserve policy. The Fed always has a big impact — for good and (more usually) for bad. And there are other issues.

We don’t have a parliamentary system, so presidents don’t usually get to do what they want. But George W Bush did during his first term. Despite what conservatives say today, for four years, the country got exactly the kind of policy that conservatives claim is so great. And the results were terrible. As you will see in the table below, during Bush’s first term, the country lost 844,000 jobs. That’s a record that is unprecedented in the modern era.

The other side of this is Obama who, despite policy victories in many important areas, saw his ability to grow the government eliminated. Most presidents in the modern era have seen public sector growth of about a million jobs per four year term. In Obama’s first term, he saw a reduction of 702,000 public sector jobs. And in his second term thus far, there have been basically no public sector jobs created. Despite that, his second term private sector job creation will likely one of, if not the, best in the modern era.

Despite all the caveats, the data are pretty hard to get past. There are really only two explanations that conservatives can offer. The first, I’ve already touched on: the idea that Republicans didn’t get to enact true conservative policy. There are a few problems with this. First, Democrats have been even more stymied in enacting liberal policy. Second, this argument devolves into the libertarian fallacy where non-perfect policy is to blame. The implication of this is that conservative policy will make everything worse the closer you get to the ideal, and then right at the end, everything will be great. Almost nothing in the real world works that way.

The second explanation for this is better: the Republicans just had bad luck. But it is still terrible. Reagan, for one, benefited enormously during the middle of his presidency (“morning in America”) because of the pent-up demand brought on the recession at the end of Carter’s term and action by the Federal Reserve at the beginning of Reagan’s. George W Bush similarly benefited, but still managed to have a bad economic recovery.

Here are all the data combined into a single table:

Term Jobs Created (thousands)
Private Sector Public Sector
Carter 9,041 1,304
Reagan I 5,360 -24
Reagan II 9,357 1,438
GHWB 1,510 1,127
Clinton I 10,885 692
Clinton II 10,070 1,242
GWB I -844 900
GWB II 381 844
Obama I 2,018 -702
Obama II 6,044 30

Note that in the table, Obama’s second term only includes the first 27 months. Assuming the same growth for 48 months would lead to 10,745,000 private sector jobs (second highest in this list), and 53,000 public sector jobs.

One thing on this table that may surprise people is that Carter had a really good term in office. There are two reasons that people don’t think of good times when they think of Carter. First, there was a recession at the end of his term. That is, by the way, why he lost re-election. People seem to only remember the ends of presidents’ terms. This is why Obama is likely to be remembered fondly and why Bush is still persona non grata among conservative elites. But the bigger reason is that the narrative is set by the power elite. During Carter’s time in office, there was high inflation. The rentier class will never forgive him for that (not that it was his fault), and they will not let the rest of us forget it.

This is the way that we should think about the economy. Jobs are what matter. GDP is also important. But as we’ve seen for the entire period that we’ve been talking about, there is little relationship between the growth of the economy and how that translates to the lives of ordinary Americans. Of course, from a political standpoint, none of this matters. The people will continue to vote on how the economy does in the nine months leading up to the next presidential election. And if the economy stalls out in 2016, the electorate will put a Republican in the White House — most likely with predictable results.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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