WASHINGTON – The economy has cranked out fewer jobs under President Bush — by millions — than it had by the same point in the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Democrats say it's evidence that Bush's economic policies aren't working.
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez counters, in an interview, "It's just a matter of timing and when we started getting out of the recession that the president inherited."
Economists suggest something fundamentally different also may be going on in the economy: The labor force of available workers is growing more slowly as the baby boom generation ages.
Under Bush, the economy produced 3.7 million new jobs from January 2001 through December of last year based on nonfarm payroll figures collected by the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That figure is likely to be higher — perhaps by an additional 810,000— when the government releases annual revisions based on more complete information next month. However, that doesn't change the basic historical picture.
When Clinton was in the White House, the economy generated 17.6 million jobs during the corresponding period — from January 1993 to December 1998. Under Reagan, 9.5 million jobs were created from January 1981 to December 1986.
Those are the two most-recent two-term presidents before Bush. Some 2.6 million jobs were created during the four-year term of Bush's father, who took office in January 1989.
Reagan had two recessions — one of which began in July 1981 and ended in November 1982. It was the most severe recession since the Great Depression, pushing the monthly unemployment rate as high as 10.8 percent.
Bush, too, has had his economic challenges. He had the 2001 recession and that year's terror attack. And, Gutierrez noted, Bush faced lingering fallout from the bursting of the stock market bubble in 2000. He also was confronted with a wave of corporate accounting scandals that rocked Wall Street — and with Iraq war beginning in 2003.
The economy lost jobs in 2001 and 2002. Since then jobs have been growing each year — including 2006, when the economy was hit by the real-estate bust.
Those jolts did affect jobs on Bush's watch, economists say. Yet they see deeper reasons for slower job growth, too.
"The principal reason is that the labor force has grown much more slowly during the president's term than under the presidencies of Clinton and Reagan and that has nothing to do with anything but demographics," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com.
Baby boomers — a huge block of workers — poured into the work force in the 1980s and were rising through the ranks in the 1990s. That's not the case now as boomers face retirement, and there are fewer young people to take their places.
Women, meanwhile, who helped to bulk up the labor force over the past few decades, aren't streaming into jobs as they once did.
These changing demographic factors will shape the country's future.
"The impending retirement of the baby boomers and the fact that women are no longer increasing their participation in the labor force at the rate they were in the past will tend to restrain the future growth of the U.S. labor force," Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said in a major speech on the economy's outlook in late November.
Earlier in the decade, most economists estimated that monthly job growth of about 150,000 was consistent with the economy growing close to its potential. Now research suggests monthly increases of roughly 100,000 jobs, says Michael Moskow, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
Democrats, who took control of Congress last Thursday for the first time in a dozen years, say Bush's trade and other economic policies have contributed to the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs and to the slower job creation.
They also argue that the poor haven't reaped benefits of the country's economic expansion.
"It has generally been an accepted fact that economic growth is a good thing and that the rising tide will lift all boats," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. "The 'rising tide lifts all boats' has always been a problem. If you think about that analogy, the rising tide is a very good idea if you have a boat. But if you are too poor to afford a boat and you are standing tiptoe in water, the rising tide goes up your nose. And so that's a mistake," he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California wants the House to approve legislation this week boosting the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour. Supporters say the move will help the working poor. Critics say it could force companies to cut jobs.
In general, the Federal Reserve and private economists say the country's job climate is good — especially given the troubled housing and automotive sectors.
For all of 2006, the unemployment rate averaged 4.6 percent, a six-year low. It was a considerable improvement from 2003's 6 percent rate, the highest under Bush.
"That says a lot," Gutierrez said of last year's showing. "I think what we are doing here is creating something that is solid, something that is enduring and something that will continue."
In Clinton's first year of office — 1993— unemployment averaged 6.9 percent, the highest on his watch. The rate dropped to 4 percent in 2000, the lowest of his presidency and the best showing in 31 years. For Reagan, the worst annual performance was when unemployment soared to 9.7 percent in 1982 as the country suffered through a painful recession. In 1988, the rate fell to 5.5 percent.