Unemployment rates are viewed as indicators not just of the health of the overall economy but also in judging the success of a presidency. They tend to go hand-in-hand with economic well-being and presidential job approval.
This chart shows the official U.S. unemployment rates since the beginning of 1948.1
Average Unemployment Rates by Presidency
Johnson had the lowest average unemployment rate across his presidency at 4.2 percent. Of the presidencies that have concluded, Ford’s saw the highest average unemployment rate at over 7.8 percent, followed closely by Reagan at over 7.5 percent.
NB. The Truman average includes figures only after January 1948. The Obama average is for a presidency in progress.
This chart shows the same data sorted by lowest average unemployment rate (Johnson) through the highest (Ford).
But averages across a presidency only tell part of the story. Here’s a more detailed breakdown within each presidency.
Unemployment Rates Under President Truman
Unemployment figures prior to January 1948 aren’t readily available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This chart begins January 1948, nearly 3 years into Truman’s presidency.
The effects of World War II demobilization were still being felt as the economy shifted from a war footing to peacetime and then started recalibrating for the Cold War and the growth of the national security state.
Overall, unemployment rates during most of Truman’s presidency were low. A notable exception was the fall of 1949 when the effects of postwar demobilization were being fully felt and the economy went into recession. Unemployment peaked at 7.9 percent in October 1949 and then fell steadily, hovering under 3 percent by the time he left office.
Unemployment Rates Under President Eisenhower
Eisenhower inherited low unemployment rates when he took office, but they rose sharply with the recession of 1953. They recovered somewhat during the mid-1950s but climbed rapidly again in the recession of 1958. They dropped somewhat before climbing even higher at the end of his presidency in the recession of 1960-61.
When Eisenhower left office, unemployment rates were much higher (6.6 percent) than they were when he first moved into the Oval Office (2.6 percent).
Unemployment Rates Under President Kennedy
JFK came to office in the midst of a recession. The economy did recover a little, but it was unconvincing and remained underperforming well into 1963. That was reflected in an unemployment rate that remained relatively high, hovering around 5.6 percent through much of 1962 and 1963.
Unemployment Rates Under President Johnson
The unemployment rate trends of LBJ and Clinton are the only two since World War II that feature a steady decline and don’t feature an uptick. The unemployment rate at the end of Johnson’s presidency (3.4 percent) was considerably less than when his presidency started (5.5 percent). The period also coincided with a spike in government hiring with the Vietnam War abroad and massive new government initiatives at home like the War on Poverty, Medicare, and Medicaid. Johnson’s presidency also saw a long period without recession.
Unemployment Rates Under President Nixon
The first year of Nixon’s presidency saw relatively low unemployment (around 3.5 percent), but by 1970, in the midst of a mild recession, they were climbing back up to similar levels to much of Kennedy’s era (around 5.5+ percent).
Unemployment Rates Under President Ford
Another recession starting in 1973 that dragged on into 1975 saw unemployment reach a new post-World War II record of 9 percent in May 1975. The lowest it recovered to during Ford’s presidency was 7.4 percent in May 1976.
Unemployment Rates Under President Carter
The first two-and-a-half years of Carter’s presidency saw slow by steady improvement in the unemployment rate, but the 1979 energy crisis, along with spiking oil prices that came with it, push unemployment back up to just under 8 percent.
Unemployment Rates Under President Reagan
When Reagan left office, the unemployment rate was back down around 5.5 percent. But things got a lot worse before they got better. For the first time since World War II, unemployment broke 10 percent in November 1982 (reaching 10.8 percent). By the time Reagan left office in January 1989, it was back down to half that.
Unemployment Rates Under President Bush (41)
The first 18 months of Bush’s presidency saw unemployment steady at just over 5 percent. But in July 1990 they began a climb that peaked at 7.8 percent in June 1992.
Unemployment Rates Under President Clinton
Like Johnson, Clinton was in office during a period when the unemployment rate declined steadily for the duration of his presidency, reflecting a strong economy. It started around 7 percent and ended around 4 percent.
Unemployment Rates Under President Bush (43)
The economic instability after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks helped fuel a rise in the unemployment rate. It declined in June 2003 through the summer and fall of 2007 before rising sharply in 2008, peaking at 7.8 percent at the time Bush left office.
Unemployment Rates Under President Obama
When Obama assumed office, the unemployment rate was still rising sharply. It topped out at 10 percent in October 2009, hovering just below that level for the next year, before beginning a steady decline at the end of 2010 that has persisted into early-2016 and breaking through the 5 percent mark at the beginning of 2016.
- All unemployment data are drawn from the official figures put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Specifically, they are from “U-3 Total unemploued, as percent of the civilian labor force (official unemployment rate)” The Bureau of Labor Statistics offers a detailed explanation of how it measures unemployment here. ↩