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George H.W. Obama?

Is the president about to suffer the same fate as the first Bush? The numbers offer some clues.

Pulpit: Obama in Ohio on Tuesday.(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Major Garrett
September 13, 2011

The White House now says that President Obama will sign portions of his $447 billion jobs bill. It has no choice. The bill as written won’t pass the Republican-controlled House and couldn’t come close to breaking a GOP filibuster in the Democratic-led Senate.

The jobs bill, then, becomes a vehicle for Obama’s campaign against stubborn Republicans who refuse to bow to his demands to pass his bill and pass it now. Like those bug-eyed consumers on the debt-settlement commercials, Obama needs a political and policy victory, and he needs it now.

Absent total victory, which was never in the cards to begin with, Obama must settle for rhetorical warfare with congressional Republicans and, eventually, the GOP nominee. The president’s political fate will in large measure be tied to economic news, most of which will either be mixed or dissatisfying.


Next year’s election looks primed to turn—as no presidential election has since 1992—on the direction and performance of the U.S. economy. Those who covered that campaign well remember a devastating indictment of 12 years of GOP rule delivered by Bill Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Al Gore Jr., D-Tenn.  

“Everything that ought to be down is up and everything that should be up is down,” Gore said, piercing the Bush-Quayle record with statistic after statistic of economic torpor. Gore’s favorite stats dealt with unemployment (up); number of jobs (down); trade deficit (up); personal income (down); budget deficit (up); consumer confidence (down); poverty (up); and bankruptcies (up).

“Fear up, hope down,” Gore would say.

How would Obama’s record stand up to the Gore test? Not particularly well, but not as bad as you might think. Bush’s record showed a dramatic worsening of economic conditions and a sense of GOP indifference to economic realities. Obama’s inherited bad conditions that got worse despite unprecedented federal intervention. The question in 2012, then, will be different from what it was in 1992. Back then, it was a simple question of satisfaction. Now, it’s satisfaction measured against the size and scope of federal action.

Here’s the first Bush era and the Obama era, by the numbers:

When George Herbert Walker Bush was sworn in as president in 1989, the unemployment rate was 5.4 percent. By October 1992, on the verge of the election, it was 7.3 percent. Bush paid a price. When Obama was sworn in in 2009, the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent. It’s 9.1 percent now.

The trade deficit in 1988 was $114 billion and was $39 billion in 1992 (up from $31 billion in 1991). In 2009, the trade deficit was $381 billion. It was $500 billion in 2010 and $448 billion in July.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, median household income in 1988 was $47,614 and fell to $46,063 in 1992. Under Obama, median household income was $49,777 in 2009 and fell to $49,445 in 2010 (it was $50,303 in 2008).

The budget deficit grew from $152 billion in 1989 to $255 billion in 1993. Under Obama, the deficit rose from $1.4 trillion in 2009 to $1.6 trillion in 2011.

Consumer confidence under Bush started at 97.99 percent in January 1989 and fell to 73.3 percent in October 1992. Under Obama, consumer confidence was 61.2 percent in January 2009 and fell to 54.9 percent last month—the lowest total since May 1980 (Obama’s high was 77.5 percent in February).

The poverty rate was 13 percent in 1988 and rose to 14.8 percent in 1992. Under Obama, it rose from 14.3 percent in 2009 to 15.1 percent in 2010, the highest level in four years (and up from 13.2 percent in 2008).

As for jobs overall, the key statistic on labor-force participation—meaning those with jobs and those searching for jobs—settles out this way. Under Bush, the rate fell from 66.5 percent in January 1989 to 66.2 percent in October 1992. For Obama, the rate fell from 65.7 percent in January 2009 to 64 percent in August.

Last, bankruptcies in 2011 are up 2.6 percent over the March-to-March data from 2010. But that’s way down compared with the 27.4 percent jump from 2009 to 2010 and the 33.3 percent jump from 2008 to 2009.

What these numbers indicate is that Obama’s economic woes are considerable and the magnitude of joblessness, poverty, budget-and-trade deficits are much greater than at the end of the first Bush era. But the deterioration of the U.S. economy as a whole, statistics suggest, was faster and steeper during the Bush era. Things were much better before 1989 and became visibly worse under Bush. Things were awful when Obama started and have either improved unevenly or gotten worse.

For both presidents, everything that ought to be down is up, and everything that should be up is down. Then and now, the questions are about the depth of the economic pain and the gap between expectations and performance. That verdict crushed Bush the elder. It is the toughest question Obama faces—no matter what Congress does with his jobs bill.

WATCH Obama in August sounded like George W. Bush while blaming Congress:

Time-Travel Mashup: Obama, Bush Sound Alike on Economy

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