America's monthly jobs report can be hard to understand. Here's what you need to know about non-farm payroll employment and the unemployment rate—with gummy bears to help explain. (Kate M. Tobey,Gillian Brockell,Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

Both of the last two Democratic presidents inherited high unemployment rates from a President Bush. And both, over the course of two terms, sliced those numbers dramatically.

But in critical other ways, the economic records of Presidents Obama and Bill Clinton aren't that much alike.

On Friday morning, the Department of Labor released the second-to-last monthly jobs report that will come while Obama is in the White House. The numbers were good, almost boringly so: The country added another 178,000 jobs last month, and the unemployment rate sank to 4.6 percent.

The pattern since Obama's first term has been steady. Month after month, the country adds jobs — sometimes a lot, sometimes a few. For both Clinton and George W. Bush, the pattern wasn't quite as stable. Clinton's economy added jobs most months, but not all; Bush's had a good run but was marked by two deep troughs.


Most of the jobs added under Obama were private sector. Since he took office, the number of people employed in government has fallen, after rising under both Clinton and Bush. (The dashed, colored lines on the charts below show where the figures were in the first month of each one's first term.)


Clinton's economy saw an expansion of both public- and private-sector jobs. Bush's saw an expansion only in the public sector. Obama saw one only in the private sector.

Economic growth, though, has been more tepid under Obama. In terms of gross domestic product, Clinton had much more robust quarterly improvements.


But let's circle back to unemployment, the economic number that tends to get all the attention. The first chart below shows the decline under both Obama and Clinton. Obama's improvement was actually sharper, given that the uptick in unemployment that began at the end of Bush's second term continued into the beginning of Obama's.


Clinton's first month in office, the unemployment rate was 7.3 percent. By December 2000, it was 3.9.

Obama's first month in office, the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent. By last month, it was 4.6.

That second graph though, the percentage of the population that is working or seeking work, tells a dramatically different story. With more of the population out of the labor force — not working and not seeking work, so they don't count as unemployed — it's easier to hit lower unemployment rate numbers, since there are fewer unemployed people. The reason for this decline has been discussed before; part of it, but not all, stems from the fact that baby boomers are aging out of the workforce.

As we've learned over the past several months, there are arguments that can be made on both sides about the strength or weakness of Obama's economy. But on the marquee figure, the unemployment rate, Obama's presidential library will be able to create a nice little exhibit.