Pete Souza/White House
The National Bureau of Economic Research's Business Cycle Dating Committee has collected data on every American recession since the 1850s. These data make clear that America has experienced economic calamity many times. The Great Recession that began in December 2007 was a much longer recession than Americans had grown used to, but our grandparents and great-grandparents saw far worse.
The latest recession lasted a painful 18 months, more than double the length of the two previous ones. But if we look back to 1854, that duration seems relatively short. Between 1865 and 1885, there were three recessions that lasted more than 32 months, and since 1854 there have been twelve recessions (out of 33 total) that lasted at least as long as our "Great" one.
Which means that there was ample historical opportunity for a president to preside over a terrible economy, and there are many possible candidates for the worst presidential economic record in modern American history.
Perhaps the most commonly relied-upon metric of economic well-being is job creation. The nearby chart draws on job-creation data that go back to 1890, spanning a period with seven recessions that were at least as long as the Great Recession. The chart provides the job-creation records for the five worst presidents over that period. In order to adjust for the changing size of the workforce, job creation is measured in terms of percentage change, and the change is calculated over the first two and a half years of a president's term in order to allow direct comparison with President Obama.
It is perhaps no surprise that Herbert Hoover's job-creation record is the worst, since his first two and a half years encompassed the dawn of the Great Depression. But it is surprising, given how terrible recessions were before World War I, that Barack Obama is solidly entrenched in second place. During his first two and a half years, employment has dropped about half a percentage point. Other than Hoover and Obama, no modern American leader has presided over negative job growth for a comparable period.
Obama's supporters might suggest that the jobs picture would have been far worse without the president's big-government, high-regulation policies. But past presidents were far less ambitious in hard times, and saw far better results. To put that in perspective, consider that government spending has increased relative to GDP by 3.1 percentage points under President Obama. In 1900, total federal spending was 3.1 percent relative to GDP.
Our great-grandparents may have seen worse recessions than we have, but they did not see a worse president.
Kevin Hassett is a senior fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies at AEI.