Consider first the Census’s broadest measure of economic well-being, the median household income—the level half of families rank above and the other half below. Over Clinton’s eight years, the median income posted a nearly 15 percent gain. Reagan followed with a roughly 10 percent increase. After significant progress in his final two years, Obama placed a solid third, registering a 6 percent rise. Under Bush, the median income fell by 2 percent.
The income gains radiated more broadly during the two Democratic presidencies. Under both Obama and Clinton, the median income grew faster for Hispanics and African Americans than it did for whites. Under Bush, it declined even more for Hispanics and African Americans than it did for whites. Under Reagan, African Americans achieved about the same gains as whites, while Hispanics lagged far behind both.
The economy also generated better results on poverty under the two Democrats. The number of Americans living in poverty fell by nearly 20 percent under Clinton and by almost 7 percent under Obama. Despite Reagan’s solid overall growth record, the number of poor people remained essentially unchanged during his presidency, declining by less than 1 percent. During Bush’s two terms, the number of poor people rose by 21 percent.
As with income, when it came to escaping poverty minority groups experienced better results during the two Democratic presidencies. Over Clinton’s terms, the number of African Americans in poverty fell the fastest, at almost 27 percent. Obama’s terms were next, with a 7 percent reduction. Reagan saw little change (a 2 percent reduction), and the number increased by 15 percent under Bush. Obama recorded the largest reduction in Hispanics in poverty (at nearly 10 percent), followed by Clinton (almost 5 percent). The number of poor Hispanics increased substantially under both Reagan and Bush. (The number of whites in poverty also declined the most under Clinton, followed by Reagan and Obama; it increased under Bush.)
One clear message from these records is that whatever the Republican recipe of tax cuts for top earners and deregulation has meant for the overall economy, it has historically produced little benefit for those at the economy’s margins. Clinton and Obama had more success at lifting those boats.
More broadly, the checkerboard pattern of income gains since 1980—with the two-term Democrats ranking first and third, and the Republicans second and last—suggests that other dynamics matter more than federal tax and regulatory policy in determining how fast Americans climb the economic ladder.
Those who defend Bush’s record or diminish Clinton’s correctly point out that many factors other than their economic choices shaped their presidencies’ outcomes—from the headwind of the September 11 attacks that Bush confronted to the tailwind Clinton received from the 1990s revolution in computing and communications. Others note that presidents who mostly cut taxes on occasion raised them (as Reagan did) or vice versa (like Clinton).