George W. Bush leaves office with some of the lowest approval numbers since the advent of modern polling. Of course, the first president to achieve historic lows when polling first began, Harry S. Truman, has been treated far more kindly by history. Will the same happen to George W. Bush? For the next few days, let’s examine his legacy.
This morning’s Washington Post has a front page article claiming that "President Bush has presided over the weakest eight-year span for the U.S. economy in decades." I quibble with the word choice "presided." A president presides over the government, arguably over the nation, but does he preside over the economy?
Ever since Ronald Reagan in his one and only debate with then-President Jimmy Carter asked, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" the principal yardstick for measuring a presidency has been the state of the economy. All the other concerns that face a president, from foreign policy to appointing judges, may be important to slivers of the electorate but voters as a whole want to know that the economy will be doing better not worse and place credit or blame on the incumbent president.
I don’t want to minimize the importance of economic growth to a healthy society and culture. In the Washington area, some suburban communities have seen as much as a 20 percent increase in child abuse and neglect cases since the economic downturn began and social workers credit the increase with increased financial pressures on families that were struggling to begin with. For those planning retirement, the evaporation of the principal in their retirement accounts has forced real hardship.
But, the press is wrong not to point out what the economic numbers during the Bush years really demonstrate: The president does not necessarily have that much control over the economy. It would be hard to find a presidency that was more pro-business than the one just finished. Bush even violated standard conservative beliefs about limited government to dole out corporate welfare, with defense contractors drinking deeply at the trough at the Pentagon, pharmaceutical companies growing fat on the Medicare drug program and all wealth enjoying historically low tax rates. Yet, we have had the worse economy in years.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the upper tax brackets were north of fifty percent, yet the economy grew like gang-busters. Interest rates can’t go any lower than they are now, yet credit is dried up. The price of a gallon of gas went up to $4 last summer and it was seen as an indicator that the economy was bad but the price is back under $2 now and the economy is demonstrably worse. And, now, there is a growing debate about whether or not the New Deal worked.
There is no doubt that government actions have an economic impact at least at the margins, and there are a lot of people whose lives can be improved or hurt at the margins, especially those who live at or near the poverty line. But, it is wrong to assess the value of a presidency based solely on the economic performance of the U.S. economy. I have my issues with George W. Bush, and I wish the corporate welfare he encouraged had produced a booming economy, but it is wrong to blame him for the worldwide economic downturn.