During his farewell visit to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, President Barack Obama took a bit of a victory lap.
At one point in the extended interview posted online, Obama said, "Here's the thing I can say, Jon. I can say this unequivocally: The VA is better now than when I came into office; government works better than when I came into office; the economy, by every metric, is better than when I came into office."
It was the last of those claims -- that "the economy, by every metric, is better than when I came into office" -- that caught our attention. That’s a pretty strong statement. Is it correct?
Statistics that support Obama’s claim
Three common economic statistics that are widely considered important are gross domestic product, unemployment rate and employment level. And looking just at these three measurements, Obama has a strong record in office.
• Gross domestic product per capita. Inflation adjusted GDP per capita -- that is, all economic activity in the United States divided by the number of U.S. residents -- has increased from $47,002 in 2009 to $54,630 in 2014, an increase of 16 percent since Obama took office.
• Unemployment rate. In January 2009, the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent. After peaking at 10 percent in October 2009, the rate fell to 5.3 percent by June 2015. That’s a drop in unemployment of almost one-third since Obama’s inauguration, and it’s been mirrored in drops among African-Americans and Latinos.
• Employment level. In January 2009, total nonfarm employment in the United States stood just shy of 134 million. By February 2010, employment had fallen to 129.6 million, but by June 2015 it had rebounded to 141.8 million. That’s an increase in jobs of almost 6 percent from the start of Obama’s term.
Where things haven’t gone so well for Obama
While Obama has some statistics to point to, it is wrong to say that "the economy, by every metric, is better than when I came into office."
We found several important measurements that went in the wrong direction during Obama’s tenure.
• Real median weekly earnings. Between the first quarter of 2009 and the first quarter of 2015, inflation-adjusted weekly earnings for full-time wage and salary workers fell from $348 to $344, a decline of about 1 percent. Comparing the second quarter of 2009 and the second quarter of 2015, weekly earnings fell from $342 to $337, a decline of about 1.4 percent.
• Median income. Inflation-adjusted median household income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, fell from $54,059 in 2009 to $51,939 in 2013 -- a decline of about 4 percent. (Depending on how you adjust these raw numbers for taxes and in-kind income, inflation-adjusted income per person may have gone up a bit rather than shrinking.)
• Percent of people in poverty. The data show that 13.2 percent of Americans were living in poverty in March 2009. By March 2014, that percentage had risen to 14.5 percent. That was down slightly from what it was in the previous three years, but not enough to match the 2009 level.
• Median weeks unemployed. In January 2009, the median number of weeks an unemployed person was unemployed was 10.7. By June 2015, that number had risen to 11.3 weeks. (The peak of 25.2 weeks came in June 2010.)
• Civilian labor force participation rate. This is the percentage of people either working or looking for work, divided by the civilian, noninstitutionalized population. In January 2009, this stood at 65.7 percent, but by June 2015, it had fallen to 62.6 percent. The caution here is that this statistic has been affected by the increasing rate of retirements due to the aging of the Baby Boomers. However, most economists say that the weak recovery has played at least some role in this decline.
• Number of people on food stamps. The number of recipients has risen from 33.5 million in 2009 to 46.5 million in 2014, an increase of 39 percent. What is hard to say is how much comes from expanded accessibility rules and how much comes from rising economic need.
The White House argues that Obama deserves credit for achieving an economic recovery "sustainably."
"We’ve had growth surge while also shedding debt and building a more sustainable foundation," said White House spokesman Eric Schultz. "We’re growing faster and safer."
Obama said, "The economy, by every metric, is better than when I came into office."
That claim is too sweeping. Certain measures of wages and income, the poverty rate and the duration of unemployment are all worse now than they were when Obama "came into office."
The statement contains an element of truth but ignores facts that would give a different impression, so we rate it Mostly False.
The Daily Show, "Barack Obama Extended Interview," July 21, 2015
Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Employment, Hours, and Earnings from the Current Employment Statistics survey (main index page)," accessed July 27, 2015
Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey (main index page)," accessed July 27, 2015
Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Table 1. Median usual weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers by sex, quarterly averages, seasonally adjusted," accessed July 27, 2015
Bureau of Economic Analysis, "National Income and Product Accounts Tables (main index page)," July 27, 2015
World Bank, "GDP per capita (current US$)," accessed July 27, 2015
U.S. Census Bureau, "Table H-6. Regions--All Races by Median and Mean Income: 1975 to 2013," accessed July 27, 2015
U.S. Census Bureau, "Table 2. Poverty Status, by Family Relationship, Race, and Hispanic Origin," accessed July 27, 2015
U.S. Department of Agriculture, "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Participation and Costs," accessed July 27, 2015
PolitiFact, "A scorecard on the economy under Barack Obama," June 1, 2012
Email interview with Tara Sinclair, George Washington University economist, July 27, 2015
Email interview with Gary Burtless, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, July 27, 2015
Email interview with Eric Schultz, White House spokesman, July 27, 2015
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