‘Obama’s Numbers’: Report card’s details are mixed — and full of surprises

REUTERS/Carlos Barria
President Barack Obama waving as he boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, on Tuesday.

The final report card on Barack Obama’s presidency is in the books, and he gets a pretty decent grade, by my lights.

The details are mixed, and full of surprises, especially if you come to the numbers with overly simplistic expectations. For example, corporate profits skyrocketed during the Obama years, but the poverty rate didn’t decline and actually inched upward, both of which probably confound simple notions of whose side Obama is on. The stock market had a great eight-year run; the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. fell.

OK, maybe it’s silly to put all this in terms of a report card. Of course it’s silly. Obama’s not a fourth-grader, and views can differ on how successful Obama has been as he approaches graduation day as a two-term POTUS (that’s President Of The United States). But the report card to which I refer is a lot more honest, a lot less biased rating than most you will see.

Why? Well, the report card its by the esteemed FactCheck.org. You don’t have to esteem FactCheck as highly as I do, if you don’t want to. But here’s the deal: As soon as Obama took office, FactCheck.org and its founder, Brooks Jackson, decided to compile a list of statistics by which success or failure could be measured and judged over the course of a presidency. No such list could be perfect or unarguable. And there’s something silly (although we do it all the time) about acting as if everything that happens, good or bad in the country, is a measure of the how well the president is doing his job. Gun ownership skyrocketed during the Obama years, which is certainly nothing Obama meant to encourage.

And, especially in these partisan polarized times, a Democratic president who spends most of his tenure dealing with a Republican-controlled Congress can’t get many of his policy preferences enacted. Plus, of course, a great deal that happens in the country is not responding to the latest legislation or policy.

But the measures FactCheck chose are – unarguably – reasonable (not perfect) choices of data that suggest whether the country – especially the economy – has moved in the right or the wrong direction and by how much. And FactCeck followed those measures, quarter by quarter, and reported the results, which gets in the way of the trick that others try to pull, which is to emphasize, of the million-and-one statistics that can be tracked, the ones that make the president look good (if they are biased in his favor) or bad (if biased against him). I’ve had enough of that kind of rigged scorecard. This scorecard, and this post, are for big boys and girls that can handle surprises that confound their expectations and or their prejudices.

So here’s the latest tally, published this week using the latest data available, and knowing that this is the last quarterly report before the next president has been elected (although Obama will still be, lame duckily, serving out his term for three more months). And Maybe FactCheck will do one more “Obama’s Numbers” reports. Either way, as of now and measuring since Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009:

  • The number of jobs in the United States grew by 10.694 million.
  • The unemployment rate fell by 5 percentage points.
  • The number of job openings at the end of the most recent quarter was 112 percent higher than on the day Obama took office.
  • The median income of U.S. households is up by 2 percent.
  • Real weekly earnings of U.S. workers are up by 4.2 percent.
  • The average price of a home is up by 23 percent.
  • The percentage of Americans living in poverty is up by 0.3 percent.
  • The number of households receiving food stamps is up by 36 percent. (Go here for a good NPR piece exploring the question of whether it’s Obama’s fault that poverty has grown, which will also explain why the jump in food stamps is so much higher than the jump in poverty.
  • The home ownership rate fell by 4.6 percentage points.
  • Corporate profits are up by 144 percent.
  • The stock market, as measured by the S&P 500, soared by 167 percent.
  • The number of Americans without health insurance dropped by 16.5 million, cutting the uninsured rate by about half.
  • The national debt (held by the public) rose by 125 percent.
  • 769 fewer Americans were murdered in 2015, compared with 2008.
  • The Consumer Price Index was up 13.4 percent.
  • The volume of coal produced fell by 36 percent.
  • The amount of energy produced by solar and wind sources combined grew by 342 percent.
  • U.S. carbon dioxide emissions fell by 12 percent.
  • U.S. crude oil production rose by 78 percent.
  • U.S. imports of foreign oil fell by 58 percent.
  • The miles per gallon of a new car increased 20 percent.
  • The number of persons apprehended at the Mexican border for trying to enter the U.S. illegally fell by 53 percent.
  • But the size of the unauthorized immigrant population also fell, by 9 percent, as measured by the Center for Migration Studies, or by 5 percent as measured by Pew.
  • Exports of goods and services are up 28 percent since Obama took office.
  • Production of handguns is up 134 percent.
  • The number of prisoners held by the U.S. in Guantanamo, Cuba, fell by 75 percent during the Obama years.
  • U.S. military fatalities in Iraq during the Obama years numbered 284, obviously a dramatic decline compared with the thousands of casualties during the George W. Bush years. But 1,755 U.S. military personnel died in Afghanistan, much more than died there under Bush.

Of course, as I emphasized above, every one of these numbers is just an entry point into a much longer story about countervailing forces.

Obama took office toward the end of the worst U.S. economic disaster since the Great Depression. Almost everything about the economy is much, much better, although not everyone seems willing to acknowledge that. But even Obama’s admirers shouldn’t oversimplify the role he or his policies played. If, like certain candidates for president, it behooves you to portray everything in the country as going to hell, and to argue that only you can fix it, you can find numbers in the report card above to help you make that case but, of course, you will have to ignore most of the numbers, because you cannot reconcile them with your political needs.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/13/2016 - 11:17 am.

    Hmmm…

    It occurs to me that George W. Bush might very much have liked to have had numbers like this at the end of HIS 8 years in office. Given that these numbers were achieved with virtually no assistance from an obstructionist, GOP-led Congress, ‘twould appear that the moderate Republican currently occupying the Oval Office has done a creditable job, despite Republican claims to the contrary… More to the point, of this particular set of numbers, at least, we could do far worse than a continuation of the policies that led to these statistics. Personally, I’d like to see some attention paid to the national debt, though my preferred method – raising government revenue by closing most corporate tax loopholes, as well as raising taxes substantially on the 1% – seems unlikely to be implemented, given the makeup of the Congress and the blizzard of “conservative” propaganda favoring “job creators.”

  2. Submitted by Dan Landherr on 10/13/2016 - 11:48 am.

    Three things put together explain why people are not happy

    “Real weekly earnings of U.S. workers are up by 4.2 percent.
    The average price of a home is up by 23 percent.
    The Consumer Price Index was up 13.4 percent.”

    People’s income is effectively less than it was 7 years ago even though productivity has improved.

    “Corporate profits are up by 144 percent”

    It would be better for most of the country if real weekly earnings were up 15% (ahead of inflation) and corporate profits were a little bit lower.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/13/2016 - 12:38 pm.

      Some Quibbles

      “Real weekly earnings of U.S. workers are up by 4.2 percent.”

      True and valid, but it’s important to remember this is a decades long trend. I’d be interested to see if it got better or worse under Obama. It seemed he was no more motivated to do anything more about this than his predecessors, which was a very low bar.

      “The average price of a home is up by 23 percent.”

      Should anyone be surprised that home values have gone up during Obama’s term, given that he slid into the driver’s seat at the depths of the Bush Recession? Sometimes it makes a big difference when the baton was passed, for good and for ill.

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/13/2016 - 03:15 pm.

    Final Grade?

    I’d think a final grade would be more indicative after the end of the first or second quarter of 2017. It does take some time to turn a battle ship around.

  4. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/13/2016 - 09:11 pm.

    Disaster

    Mr. Black skipped the statistics about labor participation rate which is almost 3% lower than it was and which explains dramatic drop in unemployment rate…

    One may also ask how come the poverty rate is up if minimum wage is increasing in many places…

    But the main thing this report does not account for is a disaster in the international relations, particularly in the Middle East, and in racial relations inside the country…

  5. Submitted by Ted Hathaway on 10/13/2016 - 09:22 pm.

    Gun ownership has fallen

    Your claim that “gun ownership has skyrocketed” during Obama’s terms refers only to gun sales and the total ownership of guns. But the number of households owning guns has actually dropped during his administration. It’s just that those which owned guns previously went out an got a lot more guns. Most of us don’t own any guns, but gun ownership have definitely been “stocking up.”

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