Economic Prosperity and the Presidents

If one believed everything the Republican National Committee and Fox News put out, it would be easy to think that achieving economic prosperity is simple: start with a big tax cut, blend in some spending reductions, add a dash of deregulation and sit back and watch the economy cook. After all, Republican presidents use this recipe and the economy booms as a result, right?

Interestingly, a recent Forbes article and a separate American Progress Action Fund analysis show that this assumption is a myth. Forbes – a business magazine not especially prone to fits of liberalism – found that over the past fifty years, Democratic presidents have had substantially more success with economic prosperity during their terms than have Republicans.

The Forbes rankings take into account a variety of economic factors (GDP growth, per capita income growth, employment gains, unemployment rate reduction, inflation reduction and federal deficit reduction) and are a good gauge for how average Americans fared during each president’s tenure in office. The rankings are not based on a specific economic theory, but instead simply combine data that experts recognize as indicators of a healthy economy.

Economic Prosperity by President




Bill Clinton


Lyndon Johnson


John Kennedy


Ronald Reagan


Gerald Ford


Jimmy Carter


Harry Truman


George W. Bush [*]


Richard Nixon


Dwight Eisenhower


George H.W. Bush

Not surprisingly, Bill Clinton tops the magazine’s prosperity chart. He is followed by two other Democrats – Johnson and Kennedy. The first Republican to show up is Reagan, who comes in fourth. No Democrat finishes lower than seventh (Truman), and the last three spots are all occupied by Republicans (Nixon, Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush). On a scale of one to eleven (one being Bill Clinton, eleven being the elder Bush), Democrats have an average ranking of 3.8, Republicans of 7.8.

Since Forbes chose not to include the current President Bush in their rankings, the American Progress Action Fund took the liberty of running the numbers based on the data available for his term to date. Primarily due to job losses and staggering deficits, the President ranks 8th (out of 11), wedged in between Harry Truman and Richard Nixon.

In a recent analysis, Brian Deese, a Senior Policy Analyst for Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress, found that this trend of better economic data under Democrats holds true for the last four presidents. Michael Kinsley, writing in the Washington Post, came to a similar conclusion when he ran the numbers. During Bill Clinton’s years in office, the United States experienced the longest period of economic expansion on record, created 23 million new jobs and saw income gains shared across the income spectrum. Under Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes, America lost manufacturing jobs, experienced increased deficits, and suffered from either decreases or minimal increases in real wages per capita.

Although presidents always receive more credit and blame for the economic outcomes that occur under their watch, the data is clear on one point: despite the myth created by the right, the American economy has done better during Democratic presidencies than Republican presidencies.

* Ranking based on available data for George W. Bush’s first term.

John Lyman is a research associate at the American Progress Action Fund.