With the perception swelling that he will be the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney has increasingly moved his attention away from his party rivals to President Barack Obama.
On Jan. 16, 2012, Romney sent a tweet blasting Obama for his jobs record.
"More Americans have lost their jobs under Barack Obama than any president in modern history," Romney wrote.
Several readers asked us to check it out.
First, we should mention that there is no useful statistic for "Americans (who) have lost their jobs" during a given time period. The labor force is fluid, so people who lose their jobs often move quickly into another one. Instead, economists use the concept of net jobs gained or lost -- how many more (or fewer) people were employed on Date B than on Date A.
When we asked the Romney campaign for backup material, they confirmed that they were talking about net jobs lost under a given president. So that’s the measure we used.
We found that Obama is indeed the only president to have a net job loss if you count from inauguration day until the end of the presidency. But it’s not necessarily fair to credit or blame presidents for jobs created or lost during the first year on the job, since the president’s policies have not had time to take effect.
Instead, if you start the count at one year into a president's term and end it one year -- a somewhat arbitrary method, but a defensible one -- it turns out that the Obama administration has presided over a net increase in jobs. So using this method, the premise of the Romney claim -- that the net jobs change for the nation as a whole under Obama was negative -- evaporates. In fact, using this method means that Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, becomes the only president to lose jobs on his watch.
Let’s dig deeper into the numbers.
The numbers starting at inauguration day
As we noted, the numbers provided by the Romney campaign used jobs figures for the president’s first and last days in office. To replicate the campaign's math, we turned to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the federal agency that tracks employment figures going back decades. Due to BLS data constraints and Romney’s use of the term "modern" presidents, we limited our search to presidents from Harry Truman on.
In previous fact checks, we’ve tried to adjust for the time each president has spent in office. But since the Romney tweet was clear about referring to total numbers of people who lost jobs, rather than the rate at which people were losing jobs under each president, we did not take that additional step for this item.
We first calculated how many jobs were gained or lost during each president’s tenure on a net basis. We also tried to adjust for the size of the population by dividing the net job gain or loss by the nation’s estimated population during the president’s first year in office. (Comparing jobs gained or lost under Obama, when the U.S. population is more than 300 million, to the changes under Truman, when the population was below 140 million, is comparing apples and oranges.)
In this chart, the first number refers to the net jobs gained or lost during the president’s tenure starting at the very beginning of his term, and the second number refers to the net change in jobs as a percentage of the U.S. population. The presidents are listed in descending order by most jobs created:
|1.||Bill Clinton||+ 22,744,000||+8.8 percent of population|
|2.||Ronald Reagan||+ 16,102,000||+7.0 percent of population|
|3.||Lyndon B. Johnson||+ 12,183,000||+6.3 percent of population|
|4.||Jimmy Carter||+ 10,339,000||+4.7 percent of population|
|5.||Richard Nixon||+ 9,181,000||+4.5 percent of population|
|6.||Harry Truman||+ 8,083,000||+5.8 percent of population|
|7.||John F. Kennedy||+ 3,538,000||+1.9 percent of population|
|8.||Dwight Eisenhower||+ 3,572,000||+2.2 percent of population|
|9.||George H.W. Bush||+ 2,592,000||+1.1 percent of population|
|10.||Gerald Ford||+ 2,073,000||+1.0 percent of population|
|11.||George W. Bush||+ 1,094,000||+0.4 percent of population|
|12.||Barack Obama||- 1,663,000||-0.5 percent of population|
So by this measure, Romney is right: Obama is the only president who saw a net job loss during his presidency. This means it’s reasonable for him to say that "more Americans have lost their jobs under Barack Obama than any president in modern history."
But, as we noted, that’s not the only way to look at it.
The numbers starting one year into each president’s term
If you use the one-year-into-the-term yardstick, the numbers don’t change dramatically -- except for Obama and his predecessor. Here’s the same breakdown, again in descending order by net jobs gained or lost:
|1.||Ronald Reagan||+18,594,000||+8.1 percent of population|
|2.||Bill Clinton||+18,117,000||+7.0 percent of population|
|3.||Lyndon B. Johnson||+11,959,000||+6.3 percent of population|
|4.||Harry Truman||+8,559,000||+6.1 percent of population|
|5.||Gerald Ford||+7,441,000||+3.5 percent of population|
|6.||Richard Nixon||+5,978,000||+2.9 percent of population|
|7.||Jimmy Carter||+5,962,000||+2.7 percent of population|
|8.||Dwight Eisenhower||+5,424,000||+3.4 percent of population|
|9.||John F. Kennedy||+4,326,000||+2.4 percent of population|
|10.||George H.W. Bush||+3,323,000||+1.3 percent of population|
|11.||Barack Obama||+2,619,000||+0.9 percent of population|
|12.||George W. Bush||- 1,310,000||- 0.5 percent of population|
So by this measurement, Obama doesn’t have a net loss of jobs at all -- in fact, the only president who does is George W. Bush. (Lest our readers think that using this methodology is some kind of liberal plot, we’ll also note that using this method gives almost 2.5 million extra jobs to Reagan, vaulting him over Clinton into the top spot in job creation among modern presidents.)
It’s worth noting that Obama’s record on jobs through December 2011 is positive unless you start counting during the first three months of his administration -- January (as Romney did), February or March 2009. We might also note that Obama was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009, and got Congress to pass his stimulus bill in mid February, a bill that took months to start pumping money into the economy.
We won't argue that counting from one year into a president’s term (or four months, or nine months) is a better solution than counting from day one; that’s a matter of opinion. But we do think it underlines an important reality -- that making small changes to methodology can produce significant deviations in the results and weakens the black-and-white certainty of Romney’s claim that "more Americans have lost their jobs under Barack Obama than any president in modern history."
It really depends on when you start counting.
A final note: It’s PolitiFact’s policy not to focus solely on the numbers in political attacks (or claims of political credit) but also to determine whether blame or credit is justified. For job-creation and job-loss claims, we've talked to many workforce experts who tell us that politicians’ policies are just one factor in employment levels, making even statistically accurate claims less than True on our Truth-O-Meter.
Romney’s claim is accurate if you count from every president’s first day in office to his final day -- by those standards, Obama is indeed the only president since World War II to have presided over a net job loss. But if you compare each president from one year into his term to one year after the end of the administration -- a plausible approach if you hope to capture what kind of impact their policies had on the economy -- Obama’s job statistics shift into positive territory, while George W. Bush’s fall into negative territory.
The fact that Obama’s -- or any other president's -- numbers can change dramatically depending on what timeline you use suggests that Romney’s conclusion isn't as telling as it sounds. Throw in PolitiFact’s perennial reminder that no politician is the sole cause of either jobs lost or jobs created, and we arrive at a ruling of Mostly False.