— Former vice president Joe Biden, during the first debate with President Trump, Sept. 29, 2020
As regular readers of the Fact Checker know, we are dubious about the practice of measuring job growth by presidential term. Presidents do not create jobs; companies and consumers do. So much also depends on the business cycle and whether the president had the luck or misfortune to take office during an economic upswing or a downswing. Certainly, a president can affect job growth with tax cuts, stimulus bills and other forms of fiscal policy. But the Federal Reserve and Congress also play important roles.
Still, it’s an irresistible scorecard for many people, including presidents themselves. So we were struck by this comment made by Biden during the debate. Let’s unpack it.
First of all, while Biden said “first one in American history,” that cannot be confirmed. Only since World War II has the government routinely collected data on employment. So that means there is solid data on the last 13 presidents, including Trump, not all 45 presidents. There may have been earlier presidents with negative job loss during their terms. (Herbert Hoover, president when the Great Depression hit, comes to mind.)
Second, economists differ on which month to start measuring jobs in a presidential term. For simplicity, some people prefer to start with January, as the new president takes the oath of office Jan. 20. But others are adamant that you need to start with February. That’s because for the Current Employment Statistics (CES) survey, employers report data to the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the pay period that includes the 12th of the month — before the new president takes office. So February, not January, would actually cover the first pay period after the new president took charge.
(The BLS says that about 34 percent of the pay periods covered in the CES report are weekly, 42 percent biweekly and 19 percent are semimonthly. About 5 percent cover the whole month, so some data in January would overlap with the new president’s term. “BLS staff cannot recommend which month to use when comparing job growth by administration,” a BLS spokesman said. “We will suggest always using the same start and end periods but not which month to start.”)
At The Fact Checker, we prefer to start with February. In most cases, the numbers do not change much but it certainly makes a difference in the scorecards for George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Nearly 800,000 jobs were lost in January 2009, as Obama took office in the midst of the Great Recession, so that results in a big change if you start in January or February. Similarly, if you shift the start date from January to February, Obama’s manufacturing job record goes from a decline of 200,000 jobs over the course of eight years to a modest gain of 4,000 manufacturing jobs. To us, that huge difference because of a one-month shift simply shows how mindless and arbitrary this game can be.
Nevertheless, here’s how the jobs records compare, with the presidents listed in the order of how many jobs were created. For presidents who did not take office in January, we started with the first month with a pay period on the 12th. Trump’s numbers are as of Biden’s debate comment.
- Bill Clinton: 22.745 million jobs
- Ronald Reagan: 16.322 million
- Barack Obama: 12.503 million
- Lyndon B. Johnson: 12.338 million
- Jimmy Carter: 10.117 million
- Harry S. Truman: 9.035 million
- Richard Nixon: 8.911 million
- John F. Kennedy: 3.804 million
- Dwight D. Eisenhower: 3.218 million
- George H.W. Bush: 2.617 million
- Gerald R. Ford: 2.378 million
- George W. Bush: 0.523 million
- Donald Trump: -4.901 million
But these are just raw numbers. Given how the U.S. working-age population has increased dramatically over the last 75 years, let’s look at the records by the percentage gain in jobs during a presidency. Under that measure, here’s how the 13 presidents rank.
- Harry S. Truman: +22 percent
- Lyndon B. Johnson: +21.5 percent
- Bill Clinton: +20.5 percent
- Ronald Reagan: +18 percent
- Richard M. Nixon: +13 percent
- Jimmy Carter: +12.5 percent
- Barack Obama: +9.5 percent
- John F. Kennedy: +7 percent
- Dwight D. Eisenhower: +6.5 percent
- Gerald R. Ford: +3 percent
- George H.W. Bush: +2.5 percent
- George W. Bush: +0.5 percent
- Donald Trump: -3.5 percent
Obviously, Trump’s record may change, as his term has not been completed. Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, Trump could claim a gain of 6.6 million jobs, or an increase of 4.5 percent, through February 2020. So, before the pandemic, Trump was on track to end up in the middle of the pack — not a terrific result for someone who constantly claims he created the greatest economy in U.S. history.
Now, of course, he’s in last place, even behind George W. Bush, who barely had any job growth over his eight-year term.
The Pinocchio Test
Biden’s statistic holds up, as Trump ranks in last place either in terms of raw numbers or percentage change. No other recent president had a negative jobs record. But as we noted, measuring job growth by presidential term is simply not a useful measure. So much depends on circumstances beyond a president’s control — and also whether a president serves two terms. (One exception is George W. Bush, whose job record, oddly enough, would have been little different if he had only served one term.)
We cannot in good conscience give this claim a Geppetto Checkmark, so we will leave this unrated.
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