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When Herbert Hoover moved out of the White House in March 1933, 7.5 million fewer Americans held jobs than when he had arrived four years earlier. Nearly one quarter of all jobs in the country had been eliminated. Hopefully, Hoover will continue to hold the record for greatest job loss in perpetuity. But the record holder for the worst rate of job growth in the more than seven decades since Hoover left office is about to change.
This analysis compares the overall rate of job growth during each of the 18 presidential terms since Hoover left office, and examines the probability of the current administration producing a sufficient number of new jobs during the remaining five months of its term to avoid setting a new post-Hoover record for slow job growth.
Counting the election in which Franklin Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover, there have been 18 presidential elections since the Hoover administration. During each of the four-year terms (with the exception of the currently incomplete term), employment has grown at least minimally. The best record of job growth was during the first Roosevelt administration, which ended in 1937. During that four-year period, the U.S. economy rebounded from the depths of the Depression and employment grew by 31 percent. The third and second best performances were also during the Roosevelt years. Continued recovery from the Depression in the 1937-1941 period added nearly 18 percent more to the nation’s total employment, and preparations for World War II helped to add another 21.5 percent between 1941 and 1945. In a 12-year period, total employment in the United States more than doubled.
Healthy increases in employment have occurred during more recent presidencies as well. Lyndon Johnson’s full four-year term in the White House from 1965-1969 saw the nation’s employment grow by more than 16 percent. The Carter presidency, more often remembered for high interest rates and gas lines, was nonetheless a period of relatively strong job growth. Employment increased by 12.8 percent between January 1977 and January 1981. Truman’s second and only full term was remarkable in that the economy was able to transition from a war footing and still add nearly 5.5 million new jobs, for a growth of more than 12 percent.
The severe monetary policy of the first Reagan administration held job growth to under 6 percent, but employment grew by slightly more than 11 percent in the second Reagan administration. During the first Clinton administration, employment grew by 10.5 percent, and during the second administration, it grew by more than 9 percent.
But there have been several administrations during which job growth was dramatically weaker. During the four years that George H.W. Bush was in the White House, total employment increased by only 2.4 percent. The worst performance, however, was during the second Eisenhower administration. Between January of 1957 and January of 1961, total employment grew by only 1.5 percent.
For a period of time this spring, it appeared that the current Bush administration had a reasonable chance of surpassing the growth of the second Eisenhower administration and avoiding the distinction of experiencing the worst job performance since Hoover. That hope now appears to have largely evaporated. If total employment growth continues at the same pace for the next five months that it experienced in the first seven months of this year, nearly 900,000 new jobs will be added to the economy — but the Bush administration will complete its four years with a small net loss in total employment. It should also be noted that this scenario seems somewhat optimistic, since the pace of monthly growth in employment has slowed each month since March.
But even if employment were to grow for the remainder of this year at the rate that it grew in March — by far the best month for job growth during this entire administration — the growth would be insufficient to match that of the Eisenhower administration. That pace of growth would permit the Bush administration to escape the distinction of losing jobs over a four-year term, but it would not permit it to catch the next poorest record. In fact, it would provide an overall expansion of only 0.8 percent, or about half that of the second Eisenhower term.
As has been pointed out in previous reports by the Center for American Progress, even the March growth in employment represented a slower pace of job growth than the country has experienced in previous recoveries. But even at the average rate of growth for a normal recovery, the Bush administration would create only about two-thirds of the jobs needed to match growth during the Eisenhower administration.
Since even the weakest level of job growth contained in any of these scenarios seems optimistic relative to the job growth levels of the last several months, it appears relatively certain that the current administration will compile the worst record in job creation since the Hoover administration. That is a particularly striking fact since tax cuts, the core of the administration’s economic policy agenda, have been justified year after year primarily on the grounds of job creation.
Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the American Progress Action Fund.