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This post looks at economic growth rates by President and party. However, it also looks at how that growth rate is affected by which party controls Congress. (This is a topic covered in a lot of depth in Presimetrics, my upcoming book written with Michael Kanell.

In this post, economic growth is measured as the annualized change in real GDP per capita, which was obtained from the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ National Income and Product Accounts Table 7.1. Growth rates are measured from the year before a President (or Congress) took office – call that the baseline real GDP per capita for any given President – to its last year in office. The analogy we use in the book is that of a sprinter; times are measured from when the starter’s pistol goes off (which is right before the sprinters start running) to right before they stop running all out (when they cross the finish line).

The BEA is the agency in charge of computing GDP, and the data goes back to 1929. The post will use all the available data with one exception – when many people are confronted with the fact that the data shows insanely fast growth during the FDR years the first reaction is denial as this isn’t exactly what pundits (not to say many authors) tell you happened during his term. Those who bother checking data move on to a second reaction, which is to insist that the rapid growth was due entirely to World War II. As a result, this post only includes FDR’s term until 1938, far enough before the start of World War II that the war shouldn’t be an issue.
So here’s what it looks like, color coded by the President’s party (red = Republican, blue = Democrat):

Despite what Glenn Beck and other media figures believe and tell us, even using only the six worst consecutive years of the FDR administration still leaves FDR at the top of the heap. Additionally, Democratic administrations tend to come out ahead of Republican administrations. Two notable exceptions are Truman and Obama, but for the latter only one year of data is available at this time. Bear in mind that FDR also had negative growth in his first year in office too, so there’s room for that to change. To a large extent, that depends on policies, and future post will examine policies that affect growth.

But in this post, let us consider something different. For some Democratic Presidents, both houses of Congress were under control of the Democratic party for every year the President was in office. However, the Republican Party was in control for some or most years for other Democratic Presidents. The next graph shows growth rates for Democratic Presidents only, but is color coded by whether the Congress was under Democrat control for the entire time the President was in office (blue) or not (red).

Leaving aside the Obama administration, for which there is only a single year’s worth of data, the graph shows that, in general, Democratic Presidents who enjoyed a Democratic Congress every single year of their terms tended to produce faster economic growth than Democratic Presidents who faced Republican-controlled Congresses for part of their term.

What about Republican Presidents? Well, we can divide Republican Presidents into three groups: those who faced mostly split Congresses (throughout most of Reagan’s term, Republicans controlled the Senate and Democrats controlled the House of Representatives), those who faced all or mostly Democratic-controlled Congresses, and those who faced mostly Republican-controlled Congresses. The next graph shows the growth rates turned in by Republican Presidents color coded by who controlled Congress (Red = All/mostly Democrats, Blue = All/mostly Republicans, Gray = Mostly Mixed).

The best performance by a Republican President came under Ronald Reagan… who faced a mixed Congress until 1987, and Democratic controlled Congress in 1987 and 1988. Even among the remaining Republican presidents, it does not appear that having a Republican controlled Congress leads to faster economic growth. Hoover was the only President to enjoy a Republican controlled Congress during his entire term, and he produced (by far) the worst results of all Presidents. GW faced a Republican controlled Congress during most of his years in office, and growth during GW’s term was below the average growth for Republican Presidents who had to deal mostly or exclusively with Democratically controlled Congresses.

To summarize – among Presidents from 1929 to the present, Democrats produced faster economic growth than Republicans with quite a margin to spare. Additionally, both Democrats and Republicans in the Oval Office were more likely to produce faster economic growth the greater the percentage of years in their term that the Democrats controlled Congress.

I’m going to try to explain what accounts for these differences in future posts.

by Mike Kimel, posted June 2, 2010

8 Responses to “Economic Growth, the President’s Party, and the Party that Controls Congress”

  1. [...] Economic Growth Rates, The President’s Party and the Party that Controls CongressCross-posted at the Presimetrics blog. [...]

  2. [...] Economic Growth Rates, The President’s Party and the Party that Controls CongressCross-posted at the Presimetrics blog. [...]

  3. ETF FOOL says:

    [...] Economic Growth Rates, The President’s Party and the Party that Controls CongressCross-posted at the Presimetrics blog. [...]

  4. [...] couple of weeks ago I had a post on the Presimetrics blog, also on the Angry Bear blog looking at economic growth rates and political parties. The post shows [...]

  5. Eschatology says:

    [...] My conclusion, back in 2001, was that when someone got around to writing The Decline and Fall of the American Empire – not the Gore Vidal version, but rather the Edward Gibbon version – they would start it on January 20, 2001. The nutshell version: during the Reagan administration, the Republican Party began buying into magical thinking (a.k.a., supply side economics). The result was a massive increase in the national debt. While these days that isn’t considered a big deal, its important to remember, other than Ford, who only served two years at a very difficult time, Reagan was the president since World War 2 to run up rather than pay down debt. Now, that could have been a one-off, as a single administration changing direction does not necessarily make a trend, but marketing beats product, and the story line, to this day, is that growth in the Reagan era was particularly impressive, never mind reality. [...]

  6. john gilbert says:

    however a lot of this data is total bs,,,,, and certainly as they say,,, statistics can say whatever you want them too,,,,
    a piece of the puzzle is who was controlling congress who actually sets the budgets,,,, which paints a very different picture.
    i was shocked to see while i thought bush 2 was a huge spender ,, and he was ,, dems controlled congress,,, and clinton’s surplus had repub control

    • Mike Kimel says:


      A piece of advice. If you’re going to show up at leave a comment on a post that’s several months old, make sure your objection isn’t something that was covered by another post on the same blog. That is especially true if, when that objection was covered, it contradicted your comment. See here: http://www.presimetrics.com/blog/?p=278

  7. [...] A tangential point is that, unless you’re a one-percenter, there’s no real economic reason to vote for Republicans. Of course, if one considers government programs inherently unjust or thinks abortion is murder, I suppose that trumps basic economics. But otherwise…this graph is telling (analysis here): [...]

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