The Obama Presidency — By the Numbers

Eight statistics that will define the legacy of the 44th president of the United States

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 18 Jan 2017 at 7:32 AM

When President Obama leaves office on Friday, he and his supporters likely will want to focus on numbers like the sub-5 percent unemployment rate, 11.3 million net new jobs and roughly 20 million more Americans with health insurance.

But Obama’s allies almost certainly will want to bury another set of numbers, those that document stagnant incomes, anemic economic growth, and an increasing threat posed by terrorism.

“In any other context, that would be considered extremism.”

Here is a look numbers that will define Obama’s presidency:

Commutations — 1,385
This is a rare area where both Obama and his critics highlight the eye-popping statistic. With the addition of 209 more shortened sentences on Tuesday, Obama has now commuted more prison terms than any other president in history.

In fact, Obama has granted more commutations than the previous 12 presidents combined, from Franklin Roosevelt through George W. Bush, according to the U.S. Pardon Office.

Neil Eggleston, counsel to the president, bragged about the number on the White House website. He argued the 1,385 commutations — along with an additional 212 pardons — show that “our nation is a forgiving nation, where hard work and a commitment to rehabilitation can lead to a second chance, and where wrongs from the past will not deprive an individual of the opportunity to move forward.”

But William Otis, a former federal prosecutor who worked in both Bush administrations, said the disparity between Obama and his predecessors — both Republican and Democrat — demonstrates a radical departure from accepted use of one of the few presidential powers that is absolute.

“It’s a clemency binge. Does he really think he knows that much more about the supposed unfairness of the criminal justice system … than his [12] immediate predecessors?” he said. “In any other context, that would be considered extremism.”

Economic Growth — 1.5 Percent
The gross domestic product, the value of all goods and services, grew by an average of 1.5 percent from 2009 to 2015. In the first two quarters of 2016, growth nearly stalled at .8 percent and 1.4 percent, respectively, before posting a healthy 3.5 percent rate in the third quarter.

Even though the current recovery is one of the longest on record, growth never kicked into high gear. Obama’s best year was 2.6 percent last year. He will finish his presidency Friday as the first president since before World War II to never preside over a single year of growth exceeding 3 percent.

Economists say that is one of the reasons why wages have been stagnant. According to the Census Bureau, the household median income in 2015, $56,516, climbed above the inflation-adjusted figure in 2008 for the first time in Obama’s presidency. But it remained below the inflation-adjusted high of $57,909 in 1999.

Labor Force Participation Rate — 62.7 Percent
Even as the unemployment rate tumbled during Obama’s tenure, a more troubling long-term trend took firm hold of the economy — labor force dropouts.

The government calculates unemployment as a percentage of the labor force without jobs. The labor force consists of everyone who has a job or is actively looking for one. But it does not count people who are not looking.

The percentage of adults — those 16 and older — who are employed or looking for work has declined steadily. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force participation rate was 65.7 percent when Obama took office in January 2009, the depths of the Recession triggered by the financial meltdown in 2008. Last month, after a long economic recovery, the rate was 62.7 percent, down 3 full percentage points and near an all-time low.

Part of the reason is the aging of America. As the country gets older and more people retire, the labor participation rate will drop somewhat. But there is a downward trend even among people who are prime working age.

Trade Deficit — Approximately $500 Billion
Obama campaigned for president in 2007 and 2008 on the promise of reining in abuses by China and closing the trade deficit. Instead, he leaves office after having watched the gap in imports and exports grow by more than 30 percent.

Through the first 11 months of 2016, the trade deficit in goods and services was $454.05 billion, on track to come close to or exceed the $500.37 billion gap in 2015, depending on December’s statistics.

It is a bad legacy but one that likely will not tar Obama too badly, predicted economic policy analyst Alan Tonelson.

“So much of the media world and much of the academic word is on the Left and always stands ready to cover for him and view him very favorably,” said Tonelson, who writes the RealityChek blog. “I think it would take a pretty big reversal.”

National Debt — Nearly $20 Trillion
At least the trade deficit only represents the gap between imports and exports in a given year. Annual budget deficits accumulate, and the combined total has to be repaid one day — theoretically, anyway.

The national debt for 2008 stood at $10.02 trillion. By last year, it had ballooned to $19.5 trillion.  And although the flood of red ink slowed after the economy pulled out the Recession, the budget never came close to balancing under Obama. The debt is projected to grow to $20.1 trillion when the current fiscal year ends in September.

Domestic Terrorism Deaths — 146
Obama is fond of saying that international terrorist organizations have not pulled off a large-scale attack on American during his presidency.

That is true  but obscures a change in tactics. Although Obama did achieve a widely celebrated victory by killing Osama bin Laden in 2011, with increasingly frequency, so-called “lone wolves” have responded to calls from groups like the Islamic State to plan and carry out their own acts of terror. And lone wolves can cause plenty of carnage. A Muslim couple shot up a party in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 people in 2015. A Muslim man who fired randomly at an Orlando nightclub killed 49 people.

According to the terrorism index tracked by the Institute for Economics and Peace, there were 105 terrorist incidents resulting in 93 deaths from 2009 through 2015.

According to a database maintained by researcher William Robert Johnston, 2016 brought nine attacks and 53 deaths.

Major Regulations — 660
Federal agencies spent the Obama years writing numerous and costly regulations applying to everything from energy to the financial services industry.

The American Action Forum counts 600 new “major” regulations — those in which the economic impact exceeds $100 million. The total cost of those regulations exceeds $800 billion, said Sam Batkins, director of regulatory policy at the Washington-based think tank.

By contrast, George W. Bush’s administration wrote only 496 major regulations. The creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Affordable Care Act, and Obama’s Clean Power Plan made it almost a certainty that regulations would be numerous and expensive.

“They created a whole new agency during the Obama administration,” he said.

Batkins said that if Congress raised taxes by $100 billion every single year of Obama's tenure, "That would certainly get people's attention."

According to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Obama administration wrote an average about 35 new regulations for every law passed by Congress, roughly twice the ratio during the Bush administration. The think tank estimates that the regulatory burden cost the economy $1.885 trillion in 2015.

"A lot of it is something you see even in independent analysis," Batkins said.

Obama Vacations — 217 days
According to Mark Knoller, a CBS News reporter who tracks presidential leisure, Obama has taken 28 vacations covering all or parts of 217 days during his two terms.

That is less than his predecessor, who spent 490 days at his Texas ranch while he was president.

Obama's travels did not come cheap to taxpayers. The conservative watchdog Judicial Watch reported last month that records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that taxpayers have spent $96.9 million on Obama's travel.

"The Obamas' notorious abuse of presidential travel perks wasted military resources and stressed the Secret Service," Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a statement at the time.

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