The unexpected strength of the January jobs report — along with some revisions in readings for November and December — pushed Biden over the 6 million mark. But he could have claimed that distinction even without them. The previous record holder was Jimmy Carter, who saw a gain of 3.9 million jobs in his first 12 months in office.
By comparison, Donald Trump’s first 12 months in office notched a gain of 2 million jobs.
The jobs numbers from the Labor Department go back to 1939, when Franklin Roosevelt was in his seventh year in office. No president other than Carter has enjoyed even half as many jobs being added during their first year as Biden’s record: No. 3 Bill Clinton posted an addition of 2.8 million jobs.
On a percentage basis, jobs are up 4.6% from where overall employment stood in January 2021 when Biden was sworn in as president. That’s the second-best percentage gain ever, just behind the 4.8% gain during Carter’s first year. Lyndon Johnson, with a 3.4% gain in his first 12 months in office after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, is the only other president to crack the 3% mark.
Biden is helped by the fact that the economy is coming back from the heavy blow it took from the pandemic in 2020. Overall economic growth last year was 5.7%, the best year of economic growth since 1984, at the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term.
Timing is everything
Much of the gain under Biden is due to timing: He took office just as the vaccine became available and the economy was enjoying a natural recovery.
Timing is everything when looking at a first-year jobs record. For example, Barack Obama had the worst first-year jobs record of any president, with a loss of 4.3 million jobs in his first 12 months. He took office in the depths of the Great Recession, when the economy was losing more than 700,000 jobs a month. The job losses in his first three months in office alone — before any of his policies could take effect — represented more than half the losses over the course of his first 12 months. And during that 12th month he was in office the job count was essentially unchanged from the month before.
“That’s the rule of presidential history: We tend to over-credit presidents when the economy is good and beat them to a pulp when it’s bad,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, a professor at Rice University.
Still, some economists contend that Biden deserves a lot of credit for the jobs added since he took office, saying that the massive $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package signed in March of last year had much to do with the strong gains.
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, noted that the amount of stimulus pumped into the economy over such a short period of time was unprecedented. While the economy would have added nearly 3 million jobs even without the package’s passage, that unprecedented level of stimulus likely created 3.7 million of the added jobs under Biden.
“It was a big package. It was supporting demand. It supercharged the economy,” he said. Items such as direct cash payments to most households, enhanced unemployment benefits and aid to cities and towns came at a time that the economy was still struggling with the effects of the pandemic.
Poor public polls
Biden seems to be getting relatively little credit from the general public for the improved state of the labor market, however.
CNN’s poll of polls shows Biden with only a 42% approval rating of his jobs performance, with 55% disapproving — one of the worst first-year approval ratings of any president.
Biden’s handling of the economy gets an even lower score, with an NBC poll showing 38% approval and 60% disapproval.
The president’s biggest problem is that inflation stands at a 39-year high. The 6.6 million jobs created in the last year might be good for people who are filling them, but they’re still a small percentage of the overall population. By contrast, virtually everyone is feeling some pain from paying higher prices for a wide range of goods.
He took time Friday to call attention to his first-year results: “America is back to work,” he said. “History has been made here. I’m proud of the role the administration’s …economic plan has played in this recovery.”
But Biden might want to keep that inflationary pain in mind. Jimmy Carter, the president whose jobs record he just beat, isn’t generally thought to have had a successful economic record because inflation throughout most of his tenure was worse than it is today. That economic hurt was a major factor behind Carter’s failure to win reelection in 1980.