Bush Deception Points

December 23, 2010

Former President George W. Bush’s book Decision Points is apparently selling quite well. The book includes a defense of the president’s fiscal record, and a table on page 447 compares Bush to prior presidents on spending and debt (you can see the table on Amazon’s search inside feature).

One problem with the table is that Bush claims credit for the low spending and debt of President Clinton’s last year, fiscal 2001. The first budget Bush crafted was for fiscal 2002. Here are the data reported by Bush, and data recalculated to better reflect the budgets that each president had some control over. Figures are averages over the fiscal year periods, measured as a share of GDP:

Decision Points Comparison: Clinton (1993-2000) 19.8%, Bush (2001-2008) 19.6%.
More Accurate Comparison: Clinton (1994-2001) 19.4%, Bush (2002-2009) 20.4%.

The book makes Bush look better on spending, but a more accurate comparison shows Clinton to have a better record.

It’s true that Bush was not responsible for some of fiscal 2009 spending, and if we take that year out Bush would have average spending of 19.8%. But consider the direction of spending under the two presidents–spending fell under Clinton from 21.4% to 18.2%, but it increased under Bush from 18.2% to 20.7% by fiscal 2008 (and even higher in fiscal 2009). (Spending data are here). 

The table in Decision Points also shows Bush looking better than Clinton on public debt as a share of GDP, averaged over each president’s tenure. But the debt data has the same time period problem as the spending data. More importantly, Clinton delivered surpluses his last four years in office, which handed Bush a budget with very low debt and low interest costs. The low interest costs helped mask the spending-increase policies of Bush for a number of years. But Bush’s profligacy eventually became clear to analysts and the public alike, and this autobiography cannot undo his record as the biggest spender since LBJ.

Final note: yes, I understand that Congress plays a large role in federal budgeting, but so do presidents. Presidents propose annual budgets, they twist arms and use the bully pulpit to increase or cut programs, they support legislation to expand or contract entitlement programs, and they sign or veto appropriation and authorization bills.

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