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Barack Obama versus Ronald Reagan - A Brief Comparison of Their First Three Years in the Oval Office

Updated on March 23, 2018

Obama vs. Reagan

In an interview conducted by 60 minutes in December 2011, American President Barack Obama stated to Host Steve Kroft that the accomplishments of his administration in its first two years would stack up to nearly any other president before him. This claim included Republican conservatives' favorite Ronald Reagan. Not surprisingly, right wing ideologues began to bang away at their keyboards and post complaints on their blogs lambasting the absurdity of President Obama's words. This hub discusses the situations inherited by the two presidents and concludes with a brief and limited comparison of Obama and Ronald Reagan during their first three years in the Oval Office. Interestingly Obama's record fairs closely to Reagan's in the comparative time periods; yet, Reagan was respected much more than Obama. No doubt there are many more factors to consider than those presented here.

Comparison of First Three Years

Ronald Reagan is touted by Right Wing Conservatives as the image of a successful president. Reagan's mantra was reduce the size of government, cut taxes, and maintain a strong military. Interestingly during his first three years of office, government spending actually went up. Even more interesting are the similarities of some of the most important economic indicators between Reagan in his first three years and that of current president Barack Obama.

Economic Comparison

The three tables shown below indicate that the US economic conditions during Obama's first three years of office faired equally with the Reagan administration during his first three years of office. In terms of real GDP growth, the US economy notched up nearly 5 percentage points in both administrations from inauguration to November of their third year. Under Reagan, the real GDP growth increased from 1.6% in the 1st quarter of 1981 to 5.6% in the third quarter of 1983. Obama inherited much worse conditions and still the real GDP growth lifted from -4.5% in the first quarter of 2009 to an estimated 1.5% in the 3rd quarter on 2011. In terms of the federal deficit, gross public debt increased in both respective administrations by around 51% in their first three years. The debt increased from US $910 billion at the end of the Carter administration to US $1,372 billion in the third quarter 1983. It lifted from US $9,986 billion at the end of the Bush administration to an estimated US $15,144 billion at the end of the third quarter 2011. Finally, under the Reagan administration, unemployment soared from 7.4% at the outset of his presidency to over 10% for nearly one full year before settling at 8.5% in November of his third year. Under Obama, unemployment began at 8.2% at the outset, hovered over 9% for most of his first three years before settling at 8.6% in November of his third year.

Foreign Policy Record

Obama's record, it would seem, is much more impressive during his initial years than Reagan's. No doubt, Reagan's greatest foreign policy accomplishment was his hardline stance towards the Soviet Union and Communist China. The eventual fall of the Soviet Union under successor George H. W. Bush was mostly due to Reagan's approach to the Kremlin during his administration. However, during his first three years, Reagan's only accomplishment of record was the invasion of tiny Grenada in the Caribbean Sea. During his first three years in office, the US military under Obama has taken down Osama Bin Laden, two or more other major al-Qaida operatives, and the indirect elimination of Libyan dictator Muammar Khaddafi. It could be argued that conditions grew worse in Afghanistan, but historically Afghanistan has been a difficult military target.

Obama-Reagan Comparison Real GDP Growth

Obama-Reagan Comparison Increase of Public Debt

Obama-Reagan Unemployment Comparison


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    • jackclee lm profile image

      Jack Lee 6 months ago from Yorktown NY

      Why only 3 years? Why not compare all 8 years? Your numbers would be way off base.

      Reagan had a super successful presidency and the proof is his Vice President Bush was elected President for a continuation of a 3rd term. Obama on the other hand, barely survived a 2nd term, lost both houses of Congress majority and many state houses and finally lost to Trump in the President vs Hillary. Not even close...

    • ecoggins profile image

      ecoggins 5 years ago from Corona, California

      Kathleen thank you for your comments. The comparison of what Reagan and Obama inherited is interesting, isn't it? I would like to see Obama do less talking and more governing; however, he never deceived the public as to how difficult this recovery would be. Perhaps, he underestimated the true depth and complexity of the problem and how entrenched Washington and may I add Wall Street truly are. I do not believe there was or is anyone in view from either side of the US political spectrum that had or has the political moxie to solve over night the vast problems facing this country.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      This is the first hub of yours that I've read, I think. Very interesting to see what each of these two supposedly polar opposites inherited. When Carter left office he was asked what his biggest regret was in handing the government over to Reagan. He said it was the direction Reagan would take the country in. I think Carter, for his flaws, was right about that. Most of where we are today can be traced back to decisions made in the 1980s. My father did highly secretive work in the aeronautical industry and said Reagan took credit for much that Carter started. Did you know Carter put up solar panels in the White House in 1976? Where would we be in the field of engery if Reagan hadn't taken them down?

      I agree that Reagan would not be welcome in the Republican Party of today. He was a master at getting things done, i.e. governing. That is the legacy we most need to idealize today.

    • ecoggins profile image

      ecoggins 6 years ago from Corona, California

      MrAungst. In the words of President Bartlett from West Wing, "Yep." The current generation of voters is stuck, polarized, between two positions unwilling to think through the wider ramifications their platforms and think reasonably about each issue. They vote in blocks like mindless minions not seeing that their demise is drawing near. The vote in Illinois with record low turn out is another demonstration of how disengaged Americans have become from the political process. They don't like what they see so instead of standing up to negotiate a new platform, they either vote by habit or don't vote at all. Thank you for your kind and encouraging comments.

    • MrAungst profile image

      MrAungst 6 years ago from Penna

      This is great info and a great comparison. Many of the people in my generation are so blindsided by the media however that they won't take the time to analyze this type of information. They will run with one aspect of it and that will be that to them. They are democrats or they are republicans, and there is no common ground to them. I fear for when my generation takes the reigns. Sorry for that little tangent there, but honestly, a great read.

    • WD Curry 111 profile image

      WD Curry 111 6 years ago from Space Coast

      This is really a good comparison. I am going to reference it from a hub I am working on where I mentioned Obama annd Reagan. I hope people will take the time to study it out.Great job. Thanks!

      What happened to the USSR, they went broke trying to fight us by proxy. We didn't lose Viet Nam. We accomplished our objective of stopping communist expansiion.

    • TheManWithNoPants profile image

      TheManWithNoPants 6 years ago from Tucson, Az.

      I agree. It didn't seem like the end was near then. Let me make something clear. I'm not an economics expert. I'm a business man and have maybe my fair share of common sense. That's it. I know what creates profit, and what leads to bankruptsy. The same principals of business apply to the economy. I DO have an analysts who kicks everybody you see on TV's ass who is an expert. George also sits up all night going through all these 500 page bills that the guys voting on them don't read. He's also a friend and hubs here on the pages. I'm anxious to get his take on this, and told him to come over. Getting back to what I was saying, the big difference I see is a 15 trillion dollar debt. George Bush spent way too much money, and our current president has accelerated that spending. I'm not an Obama hater. I believe he has more potential than anyone since Lincoln. I just honestly feel he has surrounded himself with the worst people out there through out his career. We have to cut the spending. We don't have a choice. I know the left want to raise taxes on the rich, but there's two problems with that. It starts with the guys at 250k or above. These are the guys with the jobs, and raising the taxes WILL stop growth and stop jobs. The second problem is that the increase in taxes is a drop in the bucket when you run the numbers. What no one's talking about outside my organization, is the one trillion dollars a year that goes to waste and abuse out of a 3.6 trillion dollar budget. Any housewife running a house hold budget knows that you have to stop the loss before you borrow more money. (raise taxes and/or take things away from people)

      Well, I'll go on for ever, but this is what I left business to do. It's good meeting you guy. Keep it rolling!


    • ecoggins profile image

      ecoggins 6 years ago from Corona, California

      Jim, I appreciate your encouragement and your perspective on this issue. All ideas are welcome and you make very valid points. I remember the interest rates and they were extremely high. Inflation was skying out of control. The Fed did not seem to have the same ability back then to manipulate the economy through monetary and fiscal policy as they are now. Yet, the unemployment numbers in the table above come from the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis. They show that unemployment was only at 7.4% at the beginning of Reagan's administration. What is more, as bad as the Carter administration was I do not recall anyone thinking that the economy was about to fall into another great depression as they did in 2008-2009. Even so, the point here is that both had real economic problems to deal with and at least three years in they seem to have been in very similar places.

    • TheManWithNoPants profile image

      TheManWithNoPants 6 years ago from Tucson, Az.

      Very well put together hub. Voted this up useful,and interesting. Yes, we're proud of old Ronald Reagan. Some of my extreme right brothers and sisters maybe too much so. Even my brothers and sisters center left give him credit for being pretty decent though. Me? I think he was cool, and did good job, especially considering his starting point. Here's why I feel that way ..

      To make those figures really come to life we have to first point out the circumstances that existed when the two men took office. Obama did inherit a some what ugly mess, but lets compare where the two started from, and you get a different picture. When Carter turned over the key to the White House to Reagan, the interests rates were at 21.5% Unemployment was at 10% and over 11% in many parts of the country. Inflation was 14%, so of course GDP was next to nothing. I'm not taking anything away from this well put together hub, I just want to point out that they began with entirely different numbers. Reagan dug us out of a much deeper hole. I've got to go eat dinner, so I'm rushing my point, but I DO keep a very open mind, so I'm interested in your take my friend! This is the first we met, so I want to be clear. I've founded a grass roots organization called The Housefire Project. We're new, but we're focused on corrupt leadership, and we don't care which brand of under wear they put on. I won't use this hub to soap box, but I just want you to understand that I don't defend bad managers just because they call themselves conservative. Basicly, I want to fire the whole bunch and start over with some folks that know how to work toether and get some serious crap done. We've got a congress with a 9% approval rating and there ain't no supermen either in the Oval Office or in the running for the job. We've got some serious work to do bro.