The Obama Record: It Was the Best of Terms, It Was the Worst of Terms

A look at how the last three years compare to the previous century of presidential records, based on GDP and stock market growth

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President Obama's economic record speaks for itself. But what exactly is it saying?

No president has ever won reelection with an unemployment rate higher than 8 percent. But that same rate has dropped faster in the last six months than it has in any time since 1984 -- when Reagan won a landslide reelection after a similarly deep recession. GDP growth has been frustratingly slow coming out of a financial crisis. But the stock market, which flirted with 6,000 in Obama's third month in office, now trades comfortably above 13,000.

To fully appreciate the peculiarity of the Obama years, check out this awesome chart from Floyd Norris, which ranks each president from the last 100 years by stock market return and change in GDP within their term. "Measured by stock market performance since he entered office, President Obama's administration has been among the most successful of the last hundred years," Norris writes. "Measured by economic growth, it ranks near the bottom."

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Obama's record is highly unusual. He came into office during the nadir of an awful financial crisis and presided over its slow recovery. For that reason, GDP growth been restrained by slow consumer spending and a real estate bust ... even as many energy and multinational companies have led a stock boom that rivals the Dot-Com bubble. It's a remarkably bipolar record.

But it's not unprecedented. Obama's record in this chart matches up best with President Wilson. In 1913, Wilson took office six years after a seminal financial crisis, the Panic of 1907, hadn't been fully fleshed out of the economy. The stock market had crashed before his inauguration, and Wilson oversaw a recovery in stock prices that wasn't matched by GDP growth until we joined World War I. In his first year in office, he passed one of the most important laws of the 20th century -- one that weighs heavily on economic debates of the present: He created the Federal Reserve.

Presidents are forever defined by their records, but presidential records aren't exclusively designed by presidents. Wilson went to Washington to bust trusts and wound up a foreign policy president now remembered for trying, and failing, the make the world safe for democracy. Obama went to Washington to heal partisanship and pass health care reform, and he wound up becoming a financial crisis manager stuck with balancing job creation and deficit reduction in a time of hyper-partisanship and a moribund private sector. The best laid plans of nominees ...


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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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