Presidents are at least partially judged, rightly or wrongly, by how well the economy performs under their tenure.

Here’s a look at how the past 12 presidents look according to five of the most important economic indicators – GDP,


The first indicator is the sum of all final production and consumption, or GDP.

This measure makes presidents Clinton (+35%), Reagan (+31%), Eisenhower (+20%), Kennedy (+23%), and Johnson (+21%) look good.

In contrast, presidents Obama (+10%), Ford (+8%), Bush I (+9%), Carter (+14%), and Nixon (+13%) look quite poor.

The Bush II year are somewhat a Dr.Jekyll/Mr.Hyde story.  Growth was strong during the first seven years of his presidency, peaking at about 20% during the 82nd month. Then the housing market bubble burst.

Whether to classify Bush II in the strong or weak GDP presidents probably depends more on your politics than numbers.

Total GDP Change by President, 1948 to Today

Retail Sales

The second measure is Retail Sales, which, as with GDP, makes Presidents Clinton and Reagan look like geniuses.  The best performance happened during Reagan’s presidency, ending up 68%, followed by Clinton at 57%.

Rounding out the top five are Presidents Carter (46%), Nixon (42%), and Ford (38%).

In comparing Obama to Bush II, both are almost even through the first 65 months of their respective presidencies (29%). The financial crisis hit the Bush’s numbers hard at about the seven and one half year mark, which pushed the Bush II number to just 19%.

Should the economy survive another two years without entering a recession, retail sales under Obama may beat the performance of retail sales under Bush.

Total Retail Sales Change by President, 1948 to Today

Personal Income

The third measure is Personal Income. Overall, President Reagan look quite good by this measure, with Personal Income growing by far the fastest under his tenure at 79%, with Clinton in a distant second at 59%.

The measure does not make President Obama look good.  Through the first 64 months of his presidency (Personal Income only has 64 months of data right now), Americans have only gained 20% in income, the worst of all past 12 presidents.

Perhaps surprisingly, Personal Income gained strong ground during some one-term presidents, including Carter, Ford, Nixon, and Johnson.

Total Personal Income Change by President, 1948 to Today GDP


The fourth measure is Inflation. Any individual with an understanding of the history of the Federal Reserve and inflation would likely be unsurprised by the finding that inflation grew the fastest under President Carter, with inflation up 47 percent during his one-term tenure. Inflation was the biggest reason for Carter’s departure.

During Obama’s tenure, inflation has been relatively tame (at least according to official estimates and presuming that some inflation is tolerable). Inflation is up 11% so far during Obama’s tenure.

In comparing Obama with Bush II, unless there’s a large bout of inflation in the late stages of Obama’s presidency, it’s likely that inflation under Obama will have grown less than inflation under Bush II, who saw inflation expand 20% during his 96 months.

The best years of subdued inflation were the Eisenhower years, expanding by just a little over 10%.

Total Inflation Change by President, 1948 to Today GDP


The last measure is employment.  This indicator paints a bright picture of the economy during the Reagan and Clinton years.  The employment base expanded 21% during Clinton’s tenure and 17% during Reagan’s tenure.

The past two presidents – Obama and Bush – paint a less than stellar picture.  Currently, employment is up just 3% during Obama’s tenure, while employment peaked during Bush’s presidency at a little over 4 percent, after which the economy turned south because of the housing market bust, putting Bush’s final number at 1.6 percent.

Total Employment Change by President, 1948 to Today GDP

Summing Up

In sum, if presidents are judged by how well the economy performed under their tenure, Presidents Reagan and Clinton look quite good. On the other end, Presidents Obama and to a lesser extent Bush II look less than stellar.