The Plum Line | Opinion
January 8, 2016 at 12:32 PM
The December jobs data are out from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the news is good: last month, the U.S. economy added 292,000 jobs. So at the end of this president's seventh year in office, we can make a conclusion that may be surprising: when it comes to job growth, Barack Obama's record isn't just good, it's outstanding.
I know that will be hard for some people to wrap their heads around, so we're going to take a look at the numbers. And then we're going to suggest some very important questions the Republicans running for president should answer.
Before you compare presidencies, you have to decide where to start measuring. No president can be held responsible for the jobs created or lost during the first two weeks after they take office, so measuring from January of their first year seems like it won't tell us much. What about six months into their term? It may take a year before the true effects of their policies will be felt, so should we just attribute the first year of every presidency to the prior president? There's no perfect answer to these questions, so I've decided to look at the data in multiple ways, then you can pick whichever one you'd prefer.
Let's start with a simple measure, the average number of jobs created per year of their presidency (which will allow us to compare one-termers and two-termers). Here's what it looks like:
So Bill Clinton comes out best, followed by Jimmy Carter (bet you didn't know that), followed by Reagan and then Obama. Job growth during George H.W. Bush's presidency was weak, but not as bad as it was for his son, where it was absolutely abysmal.
As for Barack Obama, if we measure this from when he was inaugurated, then after seven years in office we has seen the creation of 9.2 million jobs. But when Obama took office, the economy was hemorrhaging hundreds of thousands of jobs a month — 700,000 were lost in his first month as president, which he can hardly be blamed for. And in general it may not be fair to give credit or blame to a president for what happens at the beginning of his first term.
So here's what the data look like if we insert a one-year lag, attributing the first year of every president to the one who came before him. For instance, for Bill Clinton that means measuring from the start of 1994, one year into his presidency, and ending at the start of 2002, one year into George W. Bush's presidency:
Here, Carter looks a little worse and Reagan looks a little better, but the big change is that Obama looks much better (though in his case we're just taking out one year but not adding anything in) and George W. Bush looks much worse; in fact, Bush actually saw net job losses of over a million.
Which brings us to the question of the Great Recession and which president should be assigned the blame. You could argue this question in many ways — maybe Bush helped it happen, or maybe Obama didn't help it end quickly enough. But let's be generous, particularly to Bush, and say that he had nothing to do with the Great Recession. So to compare these two presidents we'll stop measuring Bush at the moment job losses kicked in (December 2007) and start measuring Obama once the recession hit its low point (February 2010). Here are the job totals doing it that way:
So being generous to both presidents, Bush created 5.7 million jobs before things went south, and Obama created created 13.6 million jobs after things bottomed out.
We don't know what will happen this year; there could be another recession, or there could be an economic boom. But let's assume for the moment that the economy goes along pretty much as it has been for the last few years. If we see the creation of just 200,000 jobs per month — not bad, but not spectacular either — that would add 2.4 million jobs to Obama's total, giving him 16 million jobs created since the bottom of the Great Recession. That would put him right around the same total of job creation as Reagan, and somewhat less than Clinton. Even if we counted from the beginning of his presidency, he'd still have seen the creation of almost 12 million jobs. And in the last five years, the economy has averaged 2.3 million new jobs per year, which among these presidents only Clinton exceeded.
So we can say definitively that no matter what else you think, you simply cannot say that Barack Obama hasn't been a great president for job creation. There's also no question, no matter how you measure it, about who the worst jobs president in recent history was: George W. Bush.
This isn't just a matter for historians to mull over, because right now we're in the midst of a presidential campaign, one in which — and I can't stress this too emphatically — every Republican candidate is essentially promising to bring back George W. Bush's economic policies. There is some variation in their particular plans, but all the candidates say basically the same thing: if we cut taxes (particularly for the wealthy) and scale back regulations, the economy will positively explode in a supernova of job creation and prosperity.
But we tried that not too long ago, and it failed. Spectacularly. That's not to mention that when Bill Clinton raised taxes in 1993, every Republican predicted a "job-killing recession," and they said something similar when Barack Obama allowed some of the upper-end Bush tax cuts to expire. To see whether those predictions were correct, I refer you to the charts above.
That's why if I had the chance to ask the Republican presidential candidates one question on this topic, here's what it would be:
"What you're advocating on the economy is pretty much exactly what George W. Bush did. So why didn't it work when Bush did it?"
I think the answers would be revealing. If they say, "Well, Bush didn't cut government enough" (a standard conservative argument), then that would mean that changes in tax policy aren't important, and what matters is the size of government. If that's the case, why do they put so much faith in tax cuts? And the government didn't just get bigger under Bush, it also got bigger under Obama, and under Clinton, and under Reagan too. If they say that Bush just didn't cut taxes enough (and many of them do indeed have tax cuts bigger than what Bush enacted), the follow-up should be that if more tax cuts are better, shouldn't Bush's tax cuts still have had a real effect? But they didn't, so why not?
One objection many people will raise to this whole discussion is that job creation isn't the only measure of economic health, which is absolutely true. Of late, wage growth has been lower than anyone would like. Many people still feel economically insecure. Those are important things to talk about, too. But the Republican candidates aren't really talking about them. What they're offering is a simple formula: cut taxes, and everything will be great. And we don't have to wonder how that turns out, because we already know.