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10 years after Reagan’s death: How does Obama's record compare to Reagan's?

I recently received several emails from liberals upset with comparisons I made between the economic records of President Obama and President Reagan, who died 10 years ago today on June 5. 

What set off my emailers was a lecture I gave on Reagan conservatism broadcast by C-SPAN’s “Book TV,” based on my latest book. My national platform seemed to only amplify their outrage. But here’s what really riled them:

I committed an unpardonable sin when I rattled off data affirming that various minority groups had done notably well under Ronald Reagan, in contrast to Barack Obama. This clearly touched a nerve.

The record is indisputable: the Reagan economy was vastly preferable to the Obama economy.

So, what are the facts?

For starters, both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama inherited miserable economies, but they responded very differently. 

In Reagan’s first year, he sought to stimulate economic growth via large cuts in marginal income tax rates. Reagan believed this would allow Americans to keep their money and spend and invest it better than government could; this was, in effect, private-sector stimulus. It was a stark contrast to President Obama’s massive $800 billion public-sector (i.e., government) stimulus in his first year.

The Reagan tax cuts helped initiate an economic boom, highlighted by 92 consecutive months of interrupted economic growth, far surpassing the previous record of 58 months. The bogeymen of the 1970s—chronic unemployment and the deadly combination of double-digit inflation and interest rates—were vanquished. The poverty rate dropped. Incomes (median earnings) and standard of living soared. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, which, in real terms, had declined 70 percent from 1967-82, nearly tripled from 1983-89.

And what about minorities?

Real income for a median African-American family had dropped 11 percent from 1977-82; from 1982-89, coming out of the recession, it rose by 17 percent. In the 1980s, there was a 40 percent jump in the number of black households earning $50,000 or more. Black unemployment under Reagan in the 1980s actually fell faster than white unemployment. The number of black-owned businesses increased by almost 40 percent, while the number of blacks who enrolled in college increased by almost 30 percent (white college enrollment increased by only 6 percent).

There were likewise impressive numbers for Hispanics, who saw similar to higher increases in family income, employment, and college enrollment. The number of Hispanic-owned businesses in the 1980s grew by an astounding 81 percent, and the number of Hispanics enrolled in college jumped 45 percent.

Liberals often decry the income gap between men and women. Well, under Reagan, women went from earning 60 cents for every dollar a man earned to 71 cents, and their employment and median earnings outpaced their male counterparts. Women enrolled in college in record numbers.

Of course, these are the constituencies that twice elected Barack Obama, thereby giving the green light to policies that are the antithesis of what Ronald Reagan pursued to their advantage.

For that matter, the youth vote also twice elected Barack Obama. And here, too, the data is quite eye-opening.

The peak period of youth unemployment for 16-24 year olds under Reagan was 1982, when it was 17.3%. Reagan reduced it to 10.9% by 1988. Under Obama, the peak for that same group was 19.1%. By 2013, the number was 16.3%.

The unemployment data for 16-19 year olds is even more pronounced. Under Reagan, it fell from 24% in 1982 to 14.8% in 1988. Under Obama, it declined from a high of 25.9% in 2010 to only 22.9% in 2013. The numbers for black Americans aged 16-19 are even stronger in Reagan’s favor. They fell from 49.4% in 1982 to 31.9% in 1988—a vast improvement. Under Obama, they declined from 43.0% in 2010 to only 38.8% in 2013.

Economist Stephen Moore has examined the change in household income for the four primary demographic groups that carried the electoral day for Obama in 2008 and 2012: African-Americans, Hispanics, single women, and young voters. These groups, shows Moore, have experienced the worst declines in household incomes from 2009-13.

Even then, those numbers don’t convey the current catastrophe. Many of today’s unemployed have simply become wards of the welfare state. There are an astounding 48 million Americans on food stamps under Barack Obama, far higher than under Reagan (and under George W. Bush). Reagan had reduced the number of Americans on food stamps to 18 million. The number of Americans on food stamps under Obama has jumped by 43% since his first year as president.

For the record, the total U.S. population under Reagan was 236 million, compared to 317 million under Obama. Yes, Obama has a higher population, but even then, the percentage of the population on food stamps is far higher than under Reagan.

Barack Obama once heralded what he called “redistributive change.” That’s exactly what we now have.

Finally, consider the data on another group of Americans that liberals often tout as victims of conservative economic policies.

Liberals tried to blame Ronald Reagan for the homeless in the 1980s. They did so with hysteria and viciousness. With the help of sympathetic media, their castigations had notable success, mainly because the matter of trying to quantify the total number of homeless (and the reasons for their plight) is extremely complicated. 

The homeless do not register like the unemployed do, or like those filing for welfare benefits. Calculating the homeless requires careful study. 

In the 1980s, the Department of Housing and Urban Development attempted to do just that. In 1984, HUD released its report, estimating 250,000-350,000 homeless. Even by the late 1980s, most studies placed the homeless around 300,000.

By comparison, the number of homeless under Barack Obama by his fourth year was double the number under Reagan. A study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, titled “State of Homelessness in America 2012,” listed 636,017 homeless. Unlike Reagan’s reelection, the press was completely silent in associating Obama with the homeless during his reelection. It was a non-issue.

Overall, the Reagan boom not only produced widespread prosperity but—along with the attendant Soviet collapse—helped generate budget surpluses in the 1990s, thus reversing the increase in the deficit under Reagan. Carter-Ford era terms like “malaise” and “misery index” vanished. Only during the Obama years, and specifically in 2011, has America re-approached similar misery-index levels, reaching a 28-year high.

The record is indisputable: the Reagan economy was vastly preferable to the Obama economy. And worst of all for liberals, the Reagan years were far better for all the groups they purport to care about more than conservatives: African-Americans, Hispanics, women, the youth, the homeless. 

That’s a gut-check for liberals. If they want to help these groups progress, at least with jobs and money in their pockets, they need to look to Reagan policy, not Obama policy.

Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative. His other books include, "The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor" (Mercury Ink (July 17, 2012). He is a biographer of Ronald Reagan whose books include "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism."