Public and Private Sector Payroll Jobs: Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama

By request, here is an update on an earlier post through the August employment report.

Important: There are many differences between these periods. Overall employment was smaller in the ’80s, so a different comparison might be to look at the percentage change.   Of course the participation rate was increasing in the ’80s (younger population and women joining the labor force), and the participation rate is generally declining now.  But these graphs give an overview of employment changes.

First, here is a table for private sector jobs. The top two private sector terms were both under President Clinton.  Reagan’s 2nd term saw about the same job growth as during Carter’s term. Note: There was a severe recession at the beginning of Reagan’s first term (when Volcker raised rates to slow inflation) and a recession near the end of Carter’s term (gas prices increased sharply and there was an oil embargo).

Term Private Sector
Jobs Added (000s)
Carter 9,041
Reagan 1 5,360
Reagan 2 9,357
GHW Bush 1,510
Clinton 1 10,885
Clinton 2 10,070
GW Bush 1 -841
GW Bush 2 379
Obama 1 1,998
Obama 21 3,826
119 months into 2nd term



The first graph shows the change in private sector payroll jobs from when each president took office until the end of their term(s). President George H.W. Bush only served one term, and President Obama is in the second year of his second term.

Mr. G.W. Bush (red) took office following the bursting of the stock market bubble, and left during the bursting of the housing bubble. Mr. Obama (blue) took office during the financial crisis and great recession. There was also a significant recession in the early ’80s right after Mr. Reagan (yellow) took office.

There was a recession towards the end of President G.H.W. Bush (purple) term, and Mr Clinton (light blue) served for eight years without a recession.

Private Sector Payrolls Click on graph for larger image.

The first graph is for private employment only.

The employment recovery during Mr. G.W. Bush’s (red) first term was sluggish, and private employment was down 841,000 jobs at the end of his first term.   At the end of Mr. Bush’s second term, private employment was collapsing, and there were net 462,000 private sector jobs lost during Mr. Bush’s two terms. 

Private sector employment increased slightly under President G.H.W. Bush (purple), with 1,510,000 private sector jobs added.

Private sector employment increased by 20,955,000 under President Clinton (light blue), by 14,717,000 under President Reagan (yellow), and 9,041,000 under President Carter (dashed green).

There were only 1,998,000 more private sector jobs at the end of Mr. Obama’s first term.  Eighteen months into Mr. Obama’s second term, there are now 5,824,000 more private sector jobs than when he initially took office.

Public Sector Payrolls A big difference between the presidencies has been public sector employment.  Note the bumps in public sector employment due to the decennial Census in 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010. 

The public sector grew during Mr. Carter’s term (up 1,304,000), during Mr. Reagan’s terms (up 1,414,000), during Mr. G.H.W. Bush’s term (up 1,127,000), during Mr. Clinton’s terms (up 1,934,000), and during Mr. G.W. Bush’s terms (up 1,744,000 jobs).

However the public sector has declined significantly since Mr. Obama took office (down 682,000 jobs). These job losses have mostly been at the state and local level, but more recently at the Federal level.  This has been a significant drag on overall employment.

And a table for public sector jobs. Public sector jobs declined the most during Obama’s first term, and increased the most during Reagan’s 2nd term.

Term Public Sector
Jobs Added (000s)
Carter 1,304
Reagan 1 -24
Reagan 2 1,438
GHW Bush 1,127
Clinton 1 692
Clinton 2 1,242
GW Bush 1 900
GW Bush 2 844
Obama 1 -713
Obama 21 56
119 months into 2nd term



Looking forward, I expect the economy to continue to expand for the next few years, so I don’t expect a sharp decline in private employment as happened at the end of Mr. Bush’s 2nd term (In 2005 and 2006 I was warning of a coming recession due to the bursting of the housing bubble).

A big question is when the public sector layoffs will end.  The cutbacks are clearly over at the state and local levels in the aggregate, and it appears cutbacks at the Federal level have slowed.  Right now I’m expecting some increase in public employment in 2014, but nothing like what happened during Reagan’s second term.

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