Judging the Bush Years: The Economy

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.



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10 years ago
Bush cut taxes on the wealthy so that the wealthy would have money to invest. They did, creating bubbles in housing, derivatives and commondity futures - particularly oil. He also ran up deficits to give China something to buy in exchange for American money, besides American products or materials. He cut out much of the regulation (and Clinton before him) designed to protect us from the most recent debacle. James McGregor Burns found decades ago that presidential preferences on the macro numbers are usually enacted, while Congress controls the details of spending and taxing. So, yes, he can be blamed for what happened to the economy. He certainly had more control over the economy than any President ever has on Abortion.
10 years ago
I respect Michael Sean Winters. One cannot blame the worlwide economic downturn on President Bush anymore than one can blame him for all the ailments of our world as those in some circles do. I have an FYI for all the left-wing crowd who cannot face realities without the lens of hatred for George Bush---terrorism will still be with us under Barack Obama and there will be poor people in our own country and throughout the world. Our only hope is in the Judaeo-Christian values that made our country great in the past; not in Barack Obama or any political party. Our country is now reaping what it has sown and no administration--Republican or Democratic--is without some blame.
10 years ago
That is a disingenuous article. Bush promoted reckless lending to encourage homeownership, supported the securitisation of subprime mortgages by F&F Mac, did nothing to regulate the shadow banking system, cut taxes and pumped out trillions in T-bills to the Chinese to maintain low inflation while the economy overheated. He is not solely responsible but he takes the lion share of the blame for the collapse largest slowdown in 70 years.
10 years ago
One correction, it was James Q. Wilson, not James McGregor Burns who found that presidential preferences are most important in determining the general scope of the budget in an article in Political Science Quarterly.


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