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Which president did the best job with inflation?

”Survey says” looks at various rankings and scorecards judging geographic locations while noting these grades are best seen as a mix of artful interpretation and data.

Buzz: “Which president did the best job with inflation?” It’s not a simple question to answer.

Source: My trusty spreadsheet reviewed inflation rates and White House administrations dating back to World War II. The stats were staggered by six months — so credit or blame for whatever happened in presidential transition years was somewhat shared.

The periods ranked were defined by when political parties controlled the White House. Rankings were based on the change in the inflation rate for each period, from worst to best.


President Joe Biden has seen inflation average 6.5% in the last 12 months vs. 1.3% in 2020 before he was elected. If this 5.2% jump represented his entire presidency — and he’s been in office just 16 months — it’s a cost-of-living surge topped only by fellow Democrat Jimmy Carter’s days in the White House.

Remember, inflation is often the byproduct of a hot economy, plentiful jobs and shoppers’ spending freely.

So if the cost-of-living challenge is Biden’s fault, he also should get credit for unemployment falling to a 4.6% from 8.1% in 2020. That 3.5-point drop was bested only by another Democrat, Bill Clinton.


History tells us …

#10 Jimmy Carter

Inflation — and the Federal Reserve’s fierce fight against it — gave this Democrat a short White House stint (1977-1980). Global tensions and economic mismanagement meshed to create 10.2% average inflation — the highest in this post-WWII history. The cost of living surged from 5.8% gains to 13.5% — an increase of 7.7 points, also No. 1.

The 6.6% unemployment average — the third-highest rate — masked improvement with joblessness going from 7.7% to 7.2% at the end of his one term, the fourth-best performance since 1944.

WASHINGTON, JAN. 20, 1980, REAGAN TAKES OATH Chief Justice Warren Burger administers the oath of office to Ronald Reagan on Tuesday Jan. 20, 1980 in Washington. Reagan's wife Nancy holds the Bible. Outgoing president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn are at right. Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., is third from left. (AP-Photo/cam/stf)
Ronald Reagan is sworn in as president in 1980. This started 12 years of Republican control of the White House that saw the best management of inflation since WWII. Outgoing president Jimmy Carter, at right, was ranked as the worst president on inflation. (AP-Photo/cam/stf)

#9 Kennedy-Johnson

This Democratic era (1961-1968) of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, after Kennedy’s assassination, averaged 2.3% inflation — the fourth-lowest. Cost-of-living increases went from 1.5% to 4.2% — a jump of 2.7 points, second-worst. Jobs were plentiful in the Vietnam War boom.

The 5% unemployment average was fourth-lowest and its decline from 5.5% to 3.6% ranked second-best.

#8 Nixon/Ford

This Republican era (1969-1976) of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, after Nixon’s resignation, averaged 6.4% inflation — the second highest of the 10 periods ranked. As Arab oil embargoes added to other cost-of-living woes, inflation rose from 4.2% to 5.8% in eight years — an increase of 1.5 points, the third-worst over eight years.

The 5.6% unemployment average — No. 4 highest —  swung up from 3.6% to 7.7% — the biggest jump since World War II.

#7 Harry Truman

During the Democrat’s stay in the White House (1945-1952), inflation averaged 5.3% — the third-highest of the 10 periods ranked. This post-World War II period saw cost-of-living increases go from 1.6% to 2.3% — an increase of 0.7 points, the fourth-largest since 1945.

Jobs during the “Buck Stops Here” presidency? 3.7% unemployment average — the lowest level. But it went from 1.2% to 3% in Truman’s last year — an increase that ranking No. 5 of 10.

#6 George W. Bush

The Republican’s economy (2001-2008) juggled the 9/11 terror attacks, the dot-com-stock collapse and what became an overheated housing market. Inflation averaged 2.6% inflation — No. 5 of the 10 —  going from 3.4% to 3.8%. The increase of 0.4 points ranked No. 6.

The younger Bush’s 5.2% unemployment average — No. 6 — didn’t include much of the brewing Great Recession. Joblessness went from 4% to 5.8% after eight years — but that hike was the fourth-largest since 1944.

#5 Bill Clinton

The Democrat’s term (1993-2000) was a mix of mild price hikes and ample employment. Inflation averaged 2.6% — No. 5 lowest —  going from 3.04% to 3.37%, the fifth-biggest increase. The 5.4% unemployment average — No. 5 — came as joblessness dropped from 7.5% to 4% — the best performance since WWII.

#4 Donald Trump

The economy during the Republican’s term (2017-2020) was upended by coronavirus. Inflation averaged 2.2% inflation — the third-lowest of the 10. The rate ended back where it began during Trump’s lone term — at 1.3% and fourth-best. And while Trump’s 4.6% unemployment average was second-lowest, the pandemic’s business chill pushed joblessness from 4.9% to 8.1% in four years. That increase was the second-largest since WWII.

#3 Dwight Eisenhower

The Republican’s term (1953-1960) averaged 1.4% inflation — the lowest of the periods ranked —  going from 2.3% to 1.5%, a decline of 0.8 points, the third-biggest dip. Jobs? 4.7% unemployment average — third-lowest — but it went from 3% to 5.5% in eight years, the third-worst increase.

#2 Barack Obama

The days of this Democrat in the White House (2009-2016) were a recovery period from the Great Recession’s damage. Inflation averaged 1.5% — the second-lowest since WWII, falling from 3.8% to 1.3%. That decline of 2.5 points was second-best. But hiring was slow to rebound from recessionary lows.

The 7.5% unemployment average was the highest of the 10 eras. But its dip from 5.8% to 4.9% over eight years was the third-best performance.

#1 Reagan-Bush

The White House era of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush (1981-1992) averaged 4.2% inflation — No. 4 of the 10. But it’s best remembered for when the cost of living cooled with inflation’s fall from 13.5% to 3% over 12 years. This decline of 10.5 points is unmatched since WWII.

The 7.1% unemployment average during these three terms was the second-highest while going from 7.2% to 7.5%. That uptick may seem mild, yet it likely cost Bush re-election.

Bottom line

The spreadsheet found that over nearly 80 years, inflation averaged 3.69% when Democrats were in command vs. 3.59% for Republicans.

Looking at the cost of living’s direction when Democrats had the White House since 1944, inflation rose in four of five eras — from the year before Democrats gained power, to their last year in command. For Republican presidents, inflation rose by the same metric in just two out of five periods of control.

In this same post-WWII period, a Republican White House saw joblessness average 5.7%, slightly above the Democrats’ 5.6% rate. Unemployment rose during all five periods of Republican control and just once under Democrats.

Jonathan Lansner is the business columnist for the Southern California News Group. He can be reached at

Source: Orange County Register

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