Politifact.com looked into a remark from Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., that “Democrats have been considerably more effective at creating private‐sector jobs.”
The statement was rated true, as a purely statistical matter. Yet the poltifact researcher did a good job questioning the significance of his own figures. He noted, correctly, that the president usually “deserves less credit for the good times — and less blame for the bad times.” And he added that job figures can be driven by outside factors such as oil price shocks, demographic changes or soldiers coming home after World War Two. He wryly noted “how surprised we are that Eisenhower, who presided over the ‘happy’ 1950s, managed an anemic half‐percent job growth per year, while Jimmy “Malaise” Carter finished second with 3.45 percent annual job growth.” Anyone who remembers the runaway inflation of the Carter era will realize that annual rates of job growth are not enough to describe the overall economic situation.
The author also quoted me making the point that “timing can be hugely important.” It is so important, in fact, that we may need to add another dimension to politifact’s true‐false meter to deal with political comments that are simply meaningless.
For the record, what follows is the full text of my email on this topic:
The error involved with assigning rates of job growth to Presidential terms is that six recent Presidents took office within a few months of the start of a recession: Obama (recession began December 2007), H.W. Bush (July 1990), G.W. Bush (Mar 2001), Reagan (July 1981), Nixon (Dec. 1969) and Ike (July 1953). As it happens, four of the five were Republicans.
One might argue that recessions launched near the end of the previous administration helped get these men elected. But these recessions were clearly left over from events that began previous years. It didn’t help that the first Pres. Bush passed a tax increase three months after the 1990 recession began, but the start of that recession is more plausibly blamed on the earlier spike in oil prices when Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Since employment is a lagging indicator (one of the last things to improve), that means average job growth among Presidents who took office near the start of recessions is bound to look bad in comparison with Presidents who took office after an expansion was well underway. Bill Clinton took office in 1993, long after recession ended in March 1991. The same was true of Truman, LBJ and Carter. JFK took office a month before the 1960 recession ended.
Two‐term Presidents also have more time to show good numbers, but only if they’re lucky enough to get out of office just before the next recession starts. Clinton squeaked by (despite falling stock prices and industrial production 2000), but Nixon, Eisenhower, Carter and G.W. Bush did not.
Since Bush 2nd began and ended office in recession, averages over 8 years outweigh 4 reasonably good years. This unprecedented bad timing is exaggerated by Paul Krugman’s comparison of “decades” [and President Obama’s recent reference to “the lost decade” of 1999–2009] which relies on starting and ending each decade in boomy 1959 rather than slumping 1960, ditto 1969 rather than 1970, 1979 rather than 1980, 1989 rather than 1990, and 1999 rather than 2000.
In short, statistics about employment growth over Presidential terms are dominated by the timing of the “business cycle” (including Federal Reserve policy), and have no apparent connection to economic policies attributed to the White House (as opposed to Congress).