70 Years of Analytics: Evaluating the Job Performance of Presidents

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About Steve Miller

The October 2015 employment figures were recently released, and the 271,000 new jobs added with a 5.0% unemployment rate were cause for celebration for those of blue persuasion, while yet more consternation for those of the red. Regardless of position, the bromide “It’s the economy, stupid.” will assure that jobs and employment remain front and center throughout the presidential race of 2016.

More blue than red, I’m skeptical of the ability of either party to have an immediate causal impact on the economy, and am especially wary of supply side trickle-down policies that rely on tax cuts to boost job creation. So, anticipating passionate neighborhood “discussions” in the coming months, I decided to arm myself with data evaluating the job “performance” of the different political parties and presidents of the last 70 years or so.

Finding a relevant data set was remarkably easy. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis makes available a wealth of economic statistics for download, including a time series of total non-farm payroll employment, which details monthly employment figures from 1939 to the present. These are the job figures that make the news.

Running R under Jupyter, I loaded the jobs spreadsheet data, enhancing with political party and presidential attributes, finally settling on the historical period of Truman through Obama – 1945-2015. The R packages data.table and ggplot2 were the workhorses of my analyses.

Figure 1 provides a scatterplot of monthly job change over time, democrats in blue and republicans in red. The key on the right side details the order of the presidents. It’s pretty easy to identify booms and busts from patterns in the data.

Figure 1


A couple of quick “eyeball” observations:

1) There was especially high volatility in the figures under Truman. Indeed, the almost 2 million job loss in one 1945 month substantially changes the graph’s look.

2) Carter appears to have better job numbers than he’s historically given credit for.

3) The recession early in his first term somewhat obscures a terrific finish by Reagan.

4) Clinton had smooth jobs sailing during his entire 8 years in office.

5) Bush 43 was whacked by recessions both on the way in and on the way out of office.

6) After a disastrous recession inherited from Bush 43, the Obama presidency has recovered quite well – and will likely continue to progress for the remainder of his term.

Figure 2 looks at the same data, but this time as a stripplot that jitters individual monthly figures, summarizing presidential means in black. Mean monthly job change is a better indicator than the total job change that’s often used, since many presidents serve less than two full terms. Interesting with this plot is the suggestion that the blues have actually “performed” better than the reds.

Figure 2

Figure 3‘s dotplot elucidates that performance starkly: given this time period and this data – with all its limitations – the blues appear to do better in job creation than the reds.

Figure 3

What do I make of this? Not much. I believe the causes of job growth are much more complicated than these data indicate. The population has more than doubled over the data’s time frame, and many special events such as wars and oil price shocks aren’t reflected. A president’s downturn might have been caused by a predecessor’s fiscal folly. Economists have also found significant performance advantages of the blue over red, and are similarly at a loss to explain the differences. Cause and effect are elusive.

That said, I think much good can emerge when the populace becomes politically data-driven, digesting data like these. My dream is to see both blue and red gravitate from the policy-driven-evidence rants of today to evidence-based-policy discussions of tomorrow.

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