How Obama's economic recovery stacks up against Reagan's

Yes, it's a competition

Ronald Reagan, President Obama
(Image credit: AP Photo/Scott Applewhite, John Gurzinski/Getty Images)

The economy added 162,000 jobs in July, falling just shy of expectations. Despite that sluggish growth, the unemployment rate ticked down to 7.4 percent, from 7.6 percent.

The leading GOP critique of President Barack Obama has been that he's been a poor steward of the economy. A more conservative leader, one in the vein of former President Ronald Reagan, the critics say, would have had us out of this economic hole quicker.

Reagan, after all, took office during a recession as well. So how does the recovery under Obama compare to the one under Reagan? The chart below tracks the monthly unemployment rate under each president starting at the beginning of their tenures:

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As Newt Gingrich loved to point out in the last Republican presidential primary, Reagan presided over a much swifter recovery — though his economic turnaround later tapered off considerably.

However, that's a somewhat reductive reading of the data.

First and foremost, the unemployment rate is just one measure of economic health, and its rise or fall is dependent on far more factors than just a president's actions.

Second, the recent recession was far worse than the one America faced in the early 1980s, relatively speaking. The U.S. shed more jobs as a percentage of the economy between 2007-09 than it did back then, leaving Obama with a deeper hole to dig out from.

This chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows the difference:

Reagan also had a more favorable climate for bringing down the unemployment rate, as CNN's Charles Riley pointed out:

Reagan had an advantage over Obama: The recession of the early 1980s was caused by runaway inflation, which the Federal Reserve countered by hiking interest rates. When inflation dropped, the Fed lowered rates and a massive economic boom resulted.

The major causes of the recent recession were a banking crisis and housing bubble that exploded during President George W. Bush's final months in office.

Another difference: With comparatively small debt loads, Reagan was able to push through a 23 percent across-the-board cut of individual income tax rates. Obama, meanwhile, entered the presidency with substantial budget deficits and an economy contracting at a rate of 6.7 percent. [CNN]

However, the side-by-side comparison does help explain why voters still give Obama poor marks on his handling of the economy, and why Republicans have chalked up the economy's mediocre performance to Obama's leadership.

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