Our two political parties have certain identities that are seared into our collective public brain. Democrats: the party of workers, of civil rights, of compassion and fairness, and of higher taxes and more regulation. Republicans: party of the rich, big business (and for that matter small business), the free market, and lower taxes and less regulation.
And because the GOP is the party of big business, it is universally assumed that Republicans are better at handling the economy. Polls typically find that people trust Democrats more on all the things that government does, which stands to reason, but trust Republicans more on handling the economy. Just last week I saw a poll in which respondents rated Biden as better equipped than Trump to handle race relations, the virus response, and two or three other things; but on the economy, Trump bested Biden 51-46.
It’s hard wired, and it’s wrong. Dead wrong.
Simon Rosenberg heads NDN, a liberal think tank and advocacy organization. He has spent years advising Democrats, presidents included, on how to talk about economic matters. Not long ago, he put together a little PowerPoint deck. It is fascinating. You need to know about it. The entire country needs to know about it.
The presentation compares how the economy has performed by various measures under Democratic and Republican administrations, going back to 1989. That means that it fairly compares 16 years of Democratic presidencies (Clinton and Obama) to 16 (almost) years of Republican presidencies (Bush, Bush, and Trump). It uses official government numbers, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and so forth. There’s no cooking of any numbers. It’s just the facts.
And the facts are that it’s not even close. The economy does better—far better—when we have Democratic presidents. In terms of job creation, median income, health care, and yep, even the stock market, the economy does better—the American people do better—under Democratic presidents. By a mile.
“We’ve been making a version of this ‘Dems good, Reps not-so-much’ argument for a few years now, but decided to really lean into this year because the magnitude of Trump’s failures have just made the contrast that much more stark, and even more essential for Democrats to establish,” Rosenberg told me. Amen to that.
The deck consists of about 15 slides, but I’ll walk you through just six so you get the idea. Let’s start with job creation under each president:
So you see that Clinton is the king here, but Obama is a respectable second. Both Bushes have anemic numbers, and Trump’s are a disaster. Now of course Trump’s number may be temporary, as Rosenberg noted when he discussed the presentation with me. Before the pandemic hit, through February of this year, Trump’s jobs number was 6.9 million, which is good. Post-pandemic, it's about a million below that.
So you can put an asterisk there if you want. However, the pandemic happened, and Trump’s hideous response to it is part of the reason why the unemployment rate surged. If he’d not been in denial in January and February and had taken the precautions every expert was telling him to take, we’d have had not only far fewer deaths, but the economic trauma would be shorter-lived and would have been somewhat easier to contain, instead of dragging on for who-knows-how-long because of all these unsafe reopenings. So yeah, the pandemic-related job losses are partially his fault.
In case you’re no good at math, here’s a second slide that totes up the Democratic and Republican job-creation numbers:
As you can see, it’s devastatingly lopsided. And even if you erase the pandemic-related job losses and give Trump his pre-virus 6.9 million, it would still be Democrats 34 million, Republican 11 million.
Republicans reading this may be thinking, “How convenient, he left out Reagan.” OK. Let’s put him in. In fact, let’s go back to 1961. Bill Clinton did this, you might recall, in his speech to the Democratic convention in Charlotte in 2012, which to me is the greatest convention speech of all time. He said:
“You see, we [Democrats] believe that ‘we’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own.’ It is. So who’s right? Well, since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats, 24. In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66 million private sector jobs. So what’s the job score? Republicans, 24 million; Democrats, 42 (million).”
By the end of Obama’s second term, when it was 28 years apiece, 9 million new jobs had been created, so the score was 51 million to 24 million. More than double. Indeed, all this goes back even farther than 1961. Political scientist Larry Bartels showed in his 2012 book Unequal Democracy that since World War II, by a range of measures, the economy has done better under Democrats—overall, much, much better.
Well, a conservative might say, there are other things we do well. The deficit! We’re deficit hawks, and the Democrats are big spenders! OK then. Let’s look at Slide 3:
There goes that theory. Clinton of course erased the deficit and gave us a surplus, which Dubya wiped out with two big tax cuts. Obama inherited a disaster from him but lowered the deficit over time, and Trump was already making the deficit worse before the virus hit because of his tax cut.
Well, OK then, says our conservative—the stock market! We’re the party of Wall Street! Surely the Dow does better when we’re in charge. Um… Slide 4:
As you can see, the market went way up under Clinton, and also quite up under Obama. The Bushes, meh, and Trump, fine, but nothing like the Democrats.
OK, uh, let’s see… median household income, maybe? Well, maybe not:
As you can see, up impressively under Obama and (especially) Clinton, up somewhat under Trump, and actually down under both Bushes (these are inflation-adjusted amounts, by the way).
Finally, let’s take a quick look at health care. This is one area in which a majority of people might expect that Democrats have delivered better than Republicans. That majority would be correct:
The rate of non-elderly uninsured has increased under all three GOP presidents but decreased under the Democrats, quite spectacularly under Obama.
There’s more in the full presentation. The unemployment rate? Down under Clinton and Obama, up under the Republicans (here, too, Trump would blame the virus, but as I argued above, part of the blame is his).
This is all about as open-and-shut as a case can be. There is no good Republican answer to these numbers. They would argue that it’s a bit simplistic to count the monthly jobs numbers of each presidential term because the effects of economic decisions may not kick in for months, and there is some truth to that. For example, the one economically responsible decision George H.W. Bush made, to increase taxes in 1990, deserves some of the credit for the recovery that kicked in under Clinton. But there’s no way to measure that. Counting the jobs created while a person is president is as close as we can get. And I’d argue that a pattern that goes back to 1988—or 1961, or 1945—surely tells us something. I can guarantee you that if the numbers were reversed, Republicans would be arguing that the methodology was sound.
So it’s a slam dunk. But here’s the question: Why doesn’t America know this? Why haven’t the Democratic Party and their big donors slapped some of these numbers on at least one billboard in every county in America? Why did one Democrat discuss this once in a major speech instead of every Democrat discussing it in every speech?
Rosenberg suggests two reasons. First, in 2008, Obama couldn’t brag about Clinton’s record because he was running against his wife. Second, Democratic presidents, Obama in particular, held out the false hope that he was going to get some Republican votes for this or that initiative, so he didn’t talk too much smack on the GOP. The rare times he did, like when he mic-dropped Paul Ryan in that one speech, they whined like little toddlers.
Whatever the reasons, Democrats need to wake up and tell this story. Joe Biden needs to tell this story. Every Democrat in the country running for Senate, the House, or a governor’s mansion—hell, all of them, down to county assessors—need to tell this story.
It’s going to be hard because Republicans will dispute it with the usual batch of lies, and the press will be skittish because the numbers don’t tell an “objective” story in which they can blame both sides. “After all we’ve lived through over the past 30 years, the notion that the Democrats and Republicans are mirror images of one another, somehow similar, has become so absurd that those of us on the center-left have to help retire it as an orientating narrative for domestic US politics,” Rosenberg told me. “While the media and nonprofits have real pressures to ‘both sides’ their takes, sticking with that at this point is just dishonest and distortive.”
Democrats, you have a great story to tell. Go tell it.