President Obama leaves office with a reputation for big-government activism. Yet the federal bureaucracy barely grew under Obama. It swelled by more under Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, and by even more under conservative icon Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
Here’s how the federal payroll changed under each president going back to Eisenhower. The numbers don’t include uniformed military personnel:
The big story under Obama has been the decline of the US Postal Service, which has been restructuring as email and other types of digital communication replace snail mail. The USPS has lost 107,000 workers since Obama took office, a 15% decline. Since the postal service is an independent agency that manages itself (with occasional meddling oversight by Congress), Obama probably deserves neither credit nor blame for what happens at the agency.
Excluding the postal service, the federal workforce grew by 6.1% under Obama, which is still less than the 9.9% increase under George W. Bush. But Reagan’s non-postal workforce grew by just 0.5% from 1981 to 1989, which was considerably below population growth at the time. So Reagan earns some conservative cred for keeping the size of government in check.
Bill Clinton presided over the biggest drop in the federal workforce of any modern president, whether the postal service is included or not. Clinton benefitted from the post-Cold War “peace dividend,” which allowed him to gradually shrink civilian departments that managed tense superpower relations with the former Soviet Union. Clinton also pushed a “reinventing government” program meant to rationalize the bureaucracy. At the same time, House Speaker Newt Gingrich spearheaded Republican pressure to trim government, even partnering with Clinton on some initiatives.
While Obama has been in office, the size of state and local payrolls has declined slightly, but not because of anything Obama did. The 2008 recession hammered state and local budgets, and municipal governments generally can’t borrow to fund their operations the way Washington can. Hiring has bounced back during the recovery, but it’s still lower than it was when Obama took office.
Still, Obama will also leave office with a pretty good record on job creation. He’ll depart on the heels of 75 consecutive months of job gains and 11.6 million new private-sector jobs since taking office amid a deep recession. Wage growth is picking up and some economists think we’re getting close to full employment, or the point at which everybody who wants a job can get one.
The economy still needs more decent-paying middle-class jobs for workers without a college education, perhaps the single-biggest issue that swept Republican Donald Trump into office. Trump strongly favors deregulation, which could thin out the ranks within agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. But he has an activist agenda of his own on issues such as trade, infrastructure and energy, which might require more federal action. Maybe some of those middle-class jobs he promised to create will end up in government.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.