President Barack Obama walks off of Marine One after landing on the South Lawn of the White House on Aug. 25 in Washington, DC. 
Photo by Andrew Harrer/Pool/Getty

Obama succeeds by Republican standards

It wasn’t obvious at the time, but one of the more important moments of the 2012 presidential election came about six months before Election Day. Republican Mitt Romney sat down with Mark Halperin, who pressed the GOP nominee for specifics about the economy.
HALPERIN: Would you like to be more specific about what the unemployment rate would be like at the end of your first year?
ROMNEY: I cannot predict precisely what the rate would be at the end of one year. I can tell you that over a period of four years, by virtue of the polices that we put in place, we can get the unemployment rate down to 6 percent, perhaps a little lower.
As we later noted, Romney seemed fairly confident that once the United States was freed from the scourge of Obama’s crushing, anti-growth agenda, the unemployment rate would drop to “6 percent” – maybe even “a little lower” – by the end of 2016. It would all come about thanks to the Romney agenda, after it’s “put in place.”
Shortly after making the promise, Romney appeared on Fox News to tout his ambitious prediction. “People all across the country are saying, ‘Wow, 6 percent sounds pretty good,’” the Republican boasted.
As it turns out, Americans backed President Obama anyway, and on Friday, we saw the unemployment rate fall to 5.1%, its lowest point in over seven years. That sounds “pretty good,” too.
It’s not the only GOP-preferred metric by which the White House has bragging rights. As we discussed in December, and as Roll Call’s Steven Dennis noted on Friday, Newt Gingrich also ran in 2012, but he based much of his platform on gas prices: elect Gingrich, he said, and Americans would pay just $2.50 per gallon.
Indeed, in February 2012, when the average price for a gallon of gas was $4.25, the Georgia Republican said we’d already be paying $2.50 per gallon if it weren’t for the Obama administration overseeing “an anti-American energy government.” Gingrich added, “If you want $10 a gallon gasoline … Barack Obama should be your candidate.”
As of this morning, AAA reports that the national average at the pump is just $2.39.
By these measurements – metrics that Republicans themselves chose – President Obama’s record starts to look pretty impressive. “But wait,” his critics protest, “Obama’s record still can’t compare to Reagan’s.” Is that true?
Well, in light of the latest jobs report, let’s revisit a piece from a couple of weeks ago, charting the unemployment rate under Obama and under Reagan.
Note, the x axis shows the months of the presidencies, while the y axis is the unemployment rate. Reagan, of course, served a full two terms, but for an apples-to-apples comparison, I charted each of their first 80 full months, since that covers Obama’s presidency to date.

As you’ll notice, Obama’s numbers started off in worse shape – he inherited a far-greater mess – before unemployment topped out at 10%, followed by a steady improvement. Reagan started in slightly better shape, topped out at 10.8%, and the economy took longer to see the jobless rate fall below 6% again.
Granted, the presidents faced different conditions, but this arguably works in Obama’s favor – the Democrat faced a far more severe economic downturn, which couldn’t be fixed by the Fed taking its foot off the brake.
What’s more, not only was the recession less severe in 1982, but in the 1980s, Congress also didn’t believe the economy would get better if the nation laid off hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers on purpose.
Finally, Matt Yglesias noted over the weekend that the unemployment rate “is now lower than it was at any time during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.” That’s true – Reagan’s best was 5.3%, which as it turns out, came in his final two months in office (November and December of 1988). As of last week, it’s 5.1%.
Even if the debate is held under GOP rules, looking at Obama’s economic record, it’s hard to know what Republicans are complaining about.